Learning to Serve

Behavior Clips

By Gary Wilkes

One day, a hearing impaired friend asked Mike Sapp if he had ever known of a dog being trained to assist a deaf person. At the time, it didn’t seem like a particularly momentous occasion, but it was destined to change Mike’s life.

Today, almost 30 years and thousands of service and hearing dogs later, Mike is the COO and founder of “Paws with a Cause” in Wayland, Michigan (www.pawswithacause.org).

In the mid 1970s, few people knew that dogs could do more than be guide dogs for the blind. When Mike and his wife, Candy, got started, it wasn’t entirely like reinventing the wheel. A handful of dogs had been trained to do hearing work, and several people were beginning to experiment with assistance dogs to help people with physical challenges. The process of learning how to teach dogs to provide assistance was a constantly evolving process.

To start, Mike had to ask himself, “What should a ‘hearing dog’ know how to do?” The essence of the problem was to identify which everyday sounds should be recognized by the dog and what the dog should do when it heard those sounds. With a little thought, it is easy to enumerate the things a “hearing” dog should be able to recognize. First, a doorbell; second, a knock on the door; third, a ringing telephone; and fourth, a smoke alarm.

Mike knew a deaf woman whose house had been robbed while she slept. She had been unable to hear the intruders. If the dog could alert the owner to a break-in, it would also be beneficial. That meant teaching a fifth set of sounds and a fifth behavior. The dogs must know at least five sounds and corresponding behaviors that would help the owner in each separate case. Now he had to choose the behaviors.

The dog’s correct response to the door and the telephone were fairly simple to figure out. The dog hears the sound, gets the person’s attention, and then leads him back to the source of the sound. But what about the smoke alarm? If the fire is in the direction of the alarm, the dog would inadvertently take the person into danger. Okay, that means that the proper response to a smoke alarm is to get the owner’s attention and then lead him to the nearest exit. How about an intruder? Does the dog take the owner to the burglar, or does the dog lead the owner out of the house? Maybe a non-hearing Rambo-type would prefer for the dog to bring his baseball bat rather than skedaddle out the back door.

It was soon apparent that service dogs had to be trained to work for a specific person. Mike had to make a decision. He could train more dogs if they were all trained the same way. The problem was that no two people are identical in their disabilities or in their lifestyles. To maintain the ideal of providing real independence to their clients, Paws with a Cause decided that each client should have some choice over the behaviors his or her dog would know. As the organization expanded its services to include dogs that could pull wheelchairs, open doors, and detect the onset of epileptic seizures, the commitment to personalized training remained. Each client is videotaped and interviewed so the PAWS trainers can provide a dog that offers a wide variety of general assistance and specific behaviors that are tailored to the client.

Living with a disability can be a seemingly endless struggle to perform even the simplest of tasks. For most people, dropping a pen is an inconsequential event. When you are seated in a powered wheelchair with limited mobility, the pen may actually be out of your reach. For a quadriplegic, a heavy commercial door might as well be locked if there is no one there to open it. For the deaf person, the sound of a welcome guest’s knock on the door may go unnoticed. Being forced to constantly ask for assistance of others can easily lead to a life of complete dependence.

For the last 30 years, Mike and Candy Sapp and the staff at Paws with a Cause have worked to train dogs to do things like pick up pens, open heavy doors, and respond to a knock on the door. They were the first to train a combination guide and service dog for a client that was blind and disabled. When they train a dog to assist in the mundane tasks of daily living, they know they are creating a far more precious gift than a highly trained dog. They offer true independence to people with disabilities. By living up to their simple motto, they have improved the lives of hundreds of people. “With a ‘PAWS’ dog, disability does not mean inability.”

In today’s world, the sight of a service dog is no longer a novelty. Large stores like Walmart specifically welcome guide and service dogs. The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) has created a broad acceptance of dogs in hotels and on public transportation. Groups like PAWS established the ground rules and continue to push the envelope. As groomers, you may be placed in the position to help a client whose love of dogs could lead to a better life. Knowing how to help them takes a little bit of research. Here are a few thoughts about the options available.

There are many large assistance dog schools across the country. They are all charitable organizations but have differing services. Most have long waiting lists, and new clients are placed at the back of the list. Paws with a Cause is rare in that they have a specific price for a dog. If you can get a local philanthropic group to raise the money for a dog, they will start training immediately.

There is no law that prevents an individual from training their own dog or hiring any dog trainer to transform their current pet. I have trained quite a few service dogs over the years, including three in a row for my wife. If the law wasn’t flexible, she would have had to wait to go through an approved school.

The ADA does not require accreditation for schools or trainers that create assistance dogs. This is a two-edged sword. While this means that there is a broader availability of service dogs, it means there is no rubber-stamped assurance of quality. The quality of the dogs must be investigated in advance. One large school became so inept at creating service dogs that they started coming up with “social dogs” – basically a dog that could pass the AKC Canine Good Citizens test but did no tangible service to their owner.

Getting a dog to perform on command – every behavior, every time – is the task of every service dog trainer. If you investigate trainers or schools, look very closely at their animals and how consistently they perform. If the dog won’t “down” on the first command during a demo, it’s questionable if it will fetch the phone if the client breaks a hip.

If you are assisting a customer in finding a service dog, ask a lot of questions. What happens if the dog doesn’t work out? Does it go back to the school or does the client have an option of keeping the animal? Who pays for vet fees and for how long? If the dog’s behavior deteriorates, does it have to go back to the school or do they provide trainers who can come to the client?

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