Training a Service Dog....My Journey So Far
By Stacey Kuhns
For those who have read my previous blogs, you know that I am disabled. I have several diseases and live with chronic pain 24/7. Because of the progression of my diseases, my career in law enforcement was cut short and I found myself retired and at a loss as to the path my life would take.
There are many days where simple tasks, such as getting dressed and undressed are agony. There are times when the simple task of opening a jar or holding onto something is too much for me. I walk like someone well into their eighties. There are nights when the pain makes it impossible to sleep and tears and depression threaten to overwhelm me. Yet every morning, I get back up and try to live my life to the fullest that I possibly can.
One of my many medical professionals suggested I get a service dog. I was shocked. It never crossed my mind that someone with my condition would need or benefit from a service dog. I am not blind. I am not confined to a wheelchair (although I was for one year). During my research on service dogs, (we are talking about a certified service dog, not an emotional support animal or therapy dog), I discovered that most organizations place only one to two service dogs per year with a qualified disabled person. I applied with several organizations but did not qualify.
I met with some wonderful women at a training facility who answered all of my questions about whether a service dog would be beneficial to me and how I would go about obtaining one. They assisted me with finding a puppy that would hopefully make an excellent service dog candidate and that would meet my physical needs. They assured me that I would be capable of training my own service dog through their program but warned me that it would be a two-year training commitment. And, there are no guarantees the dog will pass certification. They assured me that there are ways to train a service animal even with my physical limitations.
As I have worked with animals much of my life, I had my heart set on rescuing a dog from a shelter that would eventually become my service dog. Well, things did not turn out that way. I had been saving money up for a down payment on a used car (as I lost my car when I lost my job since I could no longer afford to keep it). Retiring nine years earlier than planned greatly affected my income. Well, I still do not have a car, but I have a potential service dog. The money went towards the purchase of a puppy that met the physical and health requirements for my purpose.
I came home with a seven-week-old puppy named Henson. I don't think I realized what I was getting myself into. Yes, there are ways to train a puppy/dog that work with my disabilities but taking care of a puppy 24 hours a day was a different matter. I questioned my decision every day. I slept less, cried more, and my pain levels increased, but I was determined not to give up and to see this through.
One big benefit to training your own service dog is that there is a very tight bond right from the start (which can also result in a dog with severe separation anxiety). Henson pretty much goes everywhere with me. When I cannot take him with me to certain places, such as my volunteer job, he has a meltdown (we are working on this). He is smart and his training is progressing well. It is A LOT of work and sometimes is difficult physically and mentally for me, but I am not one to give up on Henson or myself.
Henson is now seven months old and 61 pounds. He has another year of growing so is going to be a very big boy, which is what I wanted. But he is also very strong, so training is crucial. Henson is currently in his third training class. Recently, he has become terrified of a number of different things and many loud noises. Some of them understandable, and some fears that don't seem rational.
We will be working with the trainers on this, of course, but there is always my fear that he may not work out as a service dog. I often ask myself how I would feel about this. It's a tough one. I have invested a lot of time and money into Henson with the goal that he will be able to assist me and alleviate some of the struggles I go through daily. But, Henson is my buddy and my constant companion. As with most all dogs, he loves me unconditionally and I love him. He is family. A well-trained dog is invaluable to me as well as everyone Henson or I come into contact with, so there really is no loss if he does not get certified. Well, the loss is I won't have him to assist me in places where I need help, so I will continue to use my cane and wheelchair.
I know many people purchase service dog vests online. This is illegal. Many people have told me to do this and I refuse. I know there are so many dogs out there who have little to no service dog training yet their owners pose them as "service dogs." Shame on them is all I have to say. This is a difficult road and something I take very seriously. Henson and I are in this together and we will take our time and do it correctly.
None of this is easy. Henson and I are a short way into our training journey. While the outcome is unknown, it is certainly a great learning experience for us both and quite an adventure.
- Belching Beaver Brewery Tavern & Grill
- Dog Friendly Areas in North County San Diego
- A Struggle with a Light at the End of the Tunnel
- Slave to My Future Service Dog
- Reflecting on this Mother's Day
- A New Journey Begins