FINDING A SUITABLE CANDIDATE FOR ASSISTANCE DOG WORK
by Joan FrolingNote: 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.
After locating a dog that seems promising, programs, private trainers and experienced owner-trainers traditionally make use of three important tests. These tests reveal something about the dog’s fundamental nature. If a dog scores well on all three, it is not a guarantee the dog will make it through training, but certainly the results will help the trainer decide if it is worthwhile or not to put a dog through a Thirty Day Evaluation (testing) Period for a much more extensive evaluation of his or her suitability for this career.
The Noise Sensitivity Test: Nothing is worse than trying to cope with an assistance dog afflicted with a malady known as “gun-shyness” according to the few unfortunate assistance dog partners who have been burdened with one. Too many outings will be ruined by the dog’s intolerance for thunder, firecrackers, balloons popping at a party, doors slamming and other loud noises a team may encounter unexpectedly. Usually a dog is born with this malady, though a few may develop the tragic defect later in life, possibly as the result of a prolonged ear infection.
A trainer should test each candidate for Noise Sensitivity. One method is to drop a pot lid or similar object that makes a loud clatter on an uncarpeted floor or pavement. The range should be no closer than four feet away from the dog, as we don’t want him to think it was deliberately thrown at him. If possible, drop it when the dog isn’t looking at it. If the dog cringes in fear and won’t stop trembling, pees on the floor or tries to bolt from the room in terror, the dog is afflicted. Scolding won’t help, for the dog cannot control his reaction. Extreme Sensitivity to loud noises is thought to be a central nervous system defect. If a dog shows no reaction to the noise whatsoever, test him again in a different environment. If he still seems totally oblivious to it, beware. He may be deaf or too dull in mind for a career as a working dog.
An appropriate response would be a dog that startles, but recovers quickly. Some label this Medium or Normal Sensitivity. If the dog shows curiosity about the object, wants to sniff it, that is first rate. Also desirable but much more rare is a “nerves of steel” reaction from a supremely confident dog. Half the time the dog may not even turn around to take a look. There will be subtle indications he heard the sound but his tail keeps wagging and it is obvious loud noises don’t bother him in the slightest. His fearless attitude is a delight. Some label it Low Sensitivity.
A dog should be tested on a variety of noises in a number of locations during the 30 Day Evaluation Period. What should you think about a dog that plainly becomes nervous when exposed to loud or unfamiliar noises, but not to the point of being terrified? The dog just seems unable to relax. The dog typically resists lying down. He’d rather remain on his feet. He appears watchful, wary. The dog may ignore commands or only comply with reluctance. He can’t be comforted or cajoled out of this mood. The dog may refuse a treat if offered or spit it out, too stressed to eat. This would be labeled High Sensitivity. If lack of socialization to an urban environment is the problem, sometimes it may be possible to overcome it with a month of noise de-sensitization and field trips. If it is a genetic flaw, the nervousness will be generalized to most loud noises, not to just one or two specific sounds or to one public setting in particular. Behavior modification therapy won’t cure an inborn fundamental lack of tolerance for loud or high pitched noises. From the standpoint of an assistance dog partner, a dog that is stressed by exposure to loud or unfamiliar noises and cannot learn to relax and take them in stride definitely lacks a proper temperament for this career.
The Body Sensitivity Test: The way a dog responds to this test is a pretty good indicator of what will happen in public when somebody accidently steps on his paw or the owner’s mobility equipment bumps into the dog. The tester may have the pup or adult in her lap or may prefer to sit next to the dog. The tester picks up the dog’s paw and quickly gives the skin between the dog’s toes a brief hard pinch. If a dog shows no sign of feeling the pinch, try a more forceful one. If the dog continues to serenely ignore it, the dog has low body sensitivity, something that can negatively impact the training process in several ways.
A normal and appropriate response is for the dog to withdraw his paw or perhaps let out one yelp or climb out of the tester’s lap, indicating he noticed the pinch …..but almost immediately, the pup or adult candidate turns around and “forgives” the tester. This ability to quickly recover and the willingness to “forgive” the offender is essential in a dog who is being considered for a career in the assistance dog field. It is a trait that will protect toddlers who give his fur a painful yank. It will prevent the dog from becoming fearful of people who use mobility equipment like a wheelchair after one unpleasant experience.
If a dog’s body sensitivity is abnormally high, the dog will overreact to the pinch. Usually the dog will flee from the tester with shrill cries of protest. Typically, the dog will refuse to return and forgive the offender, but instead will act suspicious of her. Such a dog may carry a long term grudge. A few may react by biting the person who caused the pain. As a general rule of thumb, if a dog won’t forgive the tester, refuses to “kiss and makeup,” the dog’s body sensitivity is too high for him to be a reliable assistance dog.
The Fetch Test: Research has established there is a high correlation between pups that score well on the Fetch Test and those dogs who grow up to successfully complete training and graduate as guide dogs 16 months later. This experimental work took place at the school, Guide Dogs for the Blind, in San Rafael, California in the 1950’s & 60’s. It seems the Fetch Test not only can demonstrate if a dog has a natural retrieving aptitude, it can be an accurate predictor of future trainability. It apparently measures a dog’s innate willingness to cooperate with a human partner.
The tester should take a sock, a slipper or some other item that may appeal to a puppy or adult dog, briefly tease the dog with the item, toss it and observe the results. If the pup or adult dog chases after it and picks it up, he shows promise and if he brings it back, he passes the test with flying colors. Coaxing and encouragement are allowable. The test should be repeated three times and is most accurate when the tester is alone with the dog in a distraction free environment.
A poor score may not mean the pup is totally devoid of potential, since any pup can have an off day due to illness or fatigue. For that reason pups at Guide Dogs for the Blind were tested for four weeks in a row, from 8 weeks to 12 weeks old, to ensure each had a reasonable chance to show his true colors.
If a pup continually runs off with the item, he may grow up to be more independent in nature than desirable, but would be preferable to a pup or an adult dog that makes no effort at all to retrieve.
If an adult dog with a strong natural aptitude for retrieving is going through the stress of changing homes, he may refuse to retrieve during the first week or two. A trainer may wish to give an otherwise promising young dog the benefit of the doubt. However, if the dog still refuses to retrieve at the end of a 30 day trial period, it is no longer “a stress reaction,” it is definitely a lack of a natural born aptitude.
Almost any dog can be trained to retrieve on command using compulsion techniques. That is not the point. You are testing for a dog that is eager to please and wants to cooperate with and interact with, a human partner.
Suppose the dog exhibits an eagerness to please when it comes to obedience, but for some mysterious reason, refuses to retrieve? A number of methods, such as click and treat or competition with another dog can be explored in the attempt to interest the dog in retrieving something voluntarily. If none of them work, a guide dog trainer or hearing dog trainer might accept such a dog on probation, but most service dog schools, private trainers and experienced owner-trainers would not, especially if he or she expects the service dog to perform a number of tasks based on retrieving in the future. Plenty of dogs in every breed enjoy retrieving. Those seeking a service dog candidate would be wise to start with one of those, rather than working with a dog that must be forced to retrieve against it’s will.