Raising Assistance Dogs
While all dogs are amazing companions, assistance dogs are champion companions who help more than 80 million Americans with disabilities achieve a fulfilling level of freedom and security. So, how does a dog go from a loyal companion to a hard-working assistance dog? It is a long process that starts with people called puppy raisers.
Volunteer Puppy Raisers
Puppy raisers are volunteers who open up their homes and hearts to puppies who may one day become assistance dogs. Assistance organizations provide support and training to these kind folks and the raisers live with, socialize, and provide basic obedience training for the puppies. Anyone who loves dogs can apply to be a puppy raiser, but assistance organizations are very selective about who is chosen for this special job. Puppy raisers need to be confident dog people who can provide a loving home and basic obedience training for at least 12 to 15 months. They also need to be able to bring the puppies wherever they go so that the puppies will get socialized appropriately.
Prison Puppy Raising Programs
For more than two decades, some assistance organizations have been participating in prison puppy raising programs. In these special programs, prisoners are vetted carefully to determine their suitability and, if selected, can have a puppy come and live with them in prison. The puppy will go everywhere with the inmate, who is responsible for feeding and training the puppy. Assistance organizations that participate in prison puppy raising programs report that the arrangement is beneficial to all involved, providing the prisoner with meaningful responsibility, transferable job skills, and a chance to make a positive difference in the world while giving the organization puppies who are socialized and well-trained in basic obedience.
After about a year-and-a-half, the puppies who are deemed suitable for assistance work are moved up to training programs specific to the type of assistance they will provide. This training is extensive and intense. Dogs must learn to do the tasks that will be required of them as a companion to a person with a specific disability, such as helping a blind person to safely cross a street or alerting to symptoms in a person with a seizure disorder. The dogs must be able to complete these tasks despite any distractions. The dogs have to learn how to be alert but not reactive and how to ignore everything going on around them, focusing only on the handler. This type of training can require six months or more of hard work. Additionally, the dog’s handler needs training in working with the dog, so after the dog has excelled with a professional trainer, the dog will also need to work with the trainer and their new handler so that the dog and his person can learn how to work together.
Hard Work to Become a Hero
Overall, to become an assistance dog, the puppy will need a minimum of two years of training, first with a puppy raiser and then with a professional trainer and the new handler. The pup will learn socialization and obedience skills as well as the specific abilities that are needed to fulfill the new role as an assistance dog to a person whose life will change immeasurably. It is a long and challenging road to become a hero dog, but in the end, it is worth all the hard work.