It’s been rough year for all of us – and it’s not your imagination. 2020 has been so bizarre, it feels wrong not to at least do a quick run-through. 2020 brought us COVID, masks, quarantine, staying home and the negative health effects of isolation and loneliness. There have been massive business closures, record-setting unemployment, the police murders of Breonna Taylor and George Floyd and ensuing global protests, raging forest fires and hurricanes and nonstop election and political madness, misinformation posing as news, hospitals overflowing, and of course over 341,000 American deaths from COVID-19 — a loss of life equivalent of a new 9/11 every 24 hours.
Good things happened in 2020 too
It hasn’t been all bad though. We learned about dogs being trained to protect rhinos from poachers have saved saved 45 rhinos in South Africa. People around the world rose up to protest police violence and racial injustice. Thanks to stay-at-home orders, animal shelters are more empty than ever. The 2020 election saw the most voter participation in 120 years. And of course, we now have a COVID-19 vaccine.
Focus on making 2021 better
All that being said, it’s still the season for thinking about New Year resolutions and planning for the upcoming year. Most people think about the usual things: losing weight, learning to live in the moment, etc. but our mission is to encourage disabled individuals who use Service Dogs to leave nothing but an excellent impression. Here are 10 ways to be a better Service Dog team in the coming year.
1) Be polite and make an effort to educate others if you can
If you’ve been partnered with a Service Dog long enough, chances are excellent that you will have run into an access challenge, someone who is rude, secretly (or openly) jealous that you have your dog with you — or just behaves awkwardly toward you or your canine partner. Perhaps they’ll ask invasive questions. If you have an invisible disability, they may wonder aloud why “you don’t look disabled” or even openly confront you. Chances are they have never met a Service Dog team before. It’s possible that they have an image in their mind of what a disabled person with a Service Dog should look like.
While having a Service Dog does not also require you to take on the role of Public Educator (and nor does everyone have time, especially when you’re tired of being confronted the third time in one day) it’s important to leave an excellent impression. Remember, it takes only moment to leave an excellent impression — or to do the opposite. Always remember that you only get one shot at making a first impression. Be aware that your impression upon others, again likely being their first and only interaction with a team, can directly affect your rights later. The impression you leave with the public can directly impact your rights as a team, as well as the treatment you and other Service Dog teams receive in the future from both people on the street and businesses alike. Going further, the impression you leave can directly or indirectly affect change on the laws that govern you in your state or even at a federal level.
Be kind, be courteous, and treat others as you want to be treated. You may be in a rush, but the decision to partner with a Service Dog comes with responsibilities, so you should always strive to be a better Service Dog team than you were yesterday, last month or last year. You just want to get out of the store, but taking one minute to politely thank someone for their interest but explain that your is dog working will not cut into your day that much. See #9 below.
As more individuals with invisible disabilities have begun to benefit from using Service Dogs, claims about “fake” Service Dogs have also risen. To make matters worse, well-intentioned news reports about people with fake Service Dogs are increasingly causing the public to question all Service Dog teams, sadly causing greater damage. Help educate others that when it is not obvious what service an animal provides, only limited inquiries are allowed. People may ask two questions: (1) is the dog a service animal required because of a disability, and (2) what work or task has the dog been trained to perform. People cannot ask about the person’s disability, require medical documentation, require a special identification card or training documentation for the dog, or ask that the dog demonstrate its ability to perform the work or task. If explaining this does not work, show them the law.
2) Learn to listen to your Service Dog more
It is always critical that you listen to your dog. They have their job for a reason and if you read them correctly, you will learn more about yourself and the world around you in ways you never thought you ever would.
If you sit down and critically analyze both your dog’s play and work time, you may discover that your dog has learned new behaviors that can be shaped into new tasks. Dogs are thinkers, so keeping them busy with educational toys and puzzles that make them think is a great way to keep those amazing brains of theirs firing on all cylinders.
Above all, trust your dog. They are your right hand, your other half. They are not pets, and they are not toys. They are loving, wonderful, thinking, caring partners that earn every single piece of kibble. Having faith in your dog is critical. Knowing your dog, reading your dog and yes, listening to your dog will build a bond and a common language that will carry you farther than one can imagine, if they’ve never had a canine partner before.
3) Expand your horizons
Even though there’s a pandemic and staying home is the best option, you can still practice some aspects traveling — loading and unloading into vehicles, or be creative and visit a different place — an outdoor mall that you don’t normally visit, a new park, forest preserve or waterfront. Or even better, order a new book about Service Dog training.
4) Keep learning and keep training
Someone who stops learning and growing is shortening their experience of life. You should never stop learning, and that goes for your dog, too. The best way to be a better Service Dog team is to learn new things. Training with your partner continues well after you’ve become a full-time working team. Training is not only critical to keeping the team sharp, but provides a bonding time that is very important to keep you and your partner in sync and “popping and snapping”.
Keep in mind, when training a new task, praise the baby steps. Each smalls step builds on the previous one to culminate in the successful mastery of the overall goal. Keep the training sessions short and fun! It’s recommended to train for 3-5 minutes with a 15-20 minute break. This coincides nicely with television programing. Consider training during commercial breaks. When a new skill is mastered at home, it’s time to take the show on the road. A vital aspect of training that is easily forgotten is that dogs are very situational, and need to train in lots of locations before they’re able to generalize behaviors. This means that practicing in new places is also important. As a quick example, if you only train with your partner in your living room, the odds are that the canine half of the equation will only do the behavior perfectly in your living room.
Additionally, please keep in mind the three Ds: Distraction, Distance and Duration. Dogs learn best when you set up situations where they can succeed and get praise. These factors are powerful, and have real bearing on whether or not the degree of mastery that you are looking for is achieved. Once you get the behavior to a reliable level, add in the three Ds patiently and gradually.
5) Make your down time count
Down time; the times when you’re “doing nothing” are actually very important. The time spent just hanging out is a great time to relax and enjoy bonding with your dog. Whether you have a Ball Dog, or a Snuggler Dog. Now’s the time to blow off steam!
There are a lot of ways to make your down time really work to your advantage. If you have a high energy dog, consider throwing a stick or ball and letting them work out. If you have a mellow snuggler, make time to snuggle. Dogs are like people in that way. Some people blow off steam by hitting the gym or going for a run. Some people would much rather cuddle up and do nothing, or just watch a movie. Think about what your dog likes.
If you have a partner that likes puzzles, try educational toys like this Kruuse BUSTER Food Cube Feeder or make up your own. The key is to keep your Service Dog thinking. Get creative! The possibilities for bonding are as endless and as varied as the person/dog combination. The general rules are simple: keep it safe, stress free, and silly… Don’t be afraid to be silly (especially if no one’s looking!) and dance and sing with your dog. Keep it fun! There will be many smiles, the stress of being a team in public will melt away, and you and your partner will be much better for it. This also really helps in preventing “Burn Out” on both sides of the partnership. That alone makes it very important.
Down time is the perfect time to closely inspect your partner. When you’re home, relaxed and snuggling, look for spots with less fur or for lumps, bumps or rashes. Keep a sharp eye out for sores, also. These indicate pressure points, and should be looked at by a professional.
6) Make a plan to deal with medical you’ve been putting off
Take a moment and write up a list of medical concerns, both routine and not, that need to be addressed for both you and your dog. Make appointments and plan ahead to get them done in a timely manner and within budgeting constraints.
Your Service Dog’s heath affects your well-being. If regular checkups and vaccinations are scheduled as your dog progresses in age, your veterinarian may be able to spot potential problems while they’re still small. With that knowledge, you can take proactive measures to keep your Service Dog, and pet dogs alike, happy and healthy. This is not unlike getting your car a tune up, in that the mechanic will go over the vehicle carefully and let you know where the potential problems, that if left untreated, could become much bigger. Truth be told, these tests and check ups for your partner often outrank the concerns about a vehicle, for two big reasons. First, you depend on your partner for your very life. Second, cars are replaceable, souls are not. One can function without a car, but if you have a canine partner, can you really function without them?
Something many fail to request from their vet are yearly joint evaluations. It is recommended that when your teammate finishes growing, and the bones finish filling out (around 2 to 2.5 years of age), have a joint ex-ray performed. This will show any genetic problems that potentially could cause your partner pain — or even end their career early. This is especially vital when it comes to brace or mobility support dogs. Be a better Service Dog team in 2016 by putting your partner’s health, and your health, first.
7) Inspect and clean all your gear
It’s always good to keep a year round eye on these things, but we all get busy. Try to set aside a time, or times, to clean, maintain, or replace worn gear. Keeping your dog as clean and as professional looking as possible is worth the time and energy that goes in to keeping the details up to date. A sloppy team can cause a negative response from “Joe Public” and businesses alike. Do clean, repair or replace your gear as needed. The first impression you make is what you look like. Keep it professional, the difference in reception is quantifiable.
Take time right now to go through all your gear. While inspecting your partner’s tack, things like a leash, collar, balance harness, or even a cape, whatever equipment it may be, this is a great time to inspect them for dirt and wear. If anything needs to be replaced, create a budget and make sure it gets done. If you save 25 cents a day, you’ll have $90.00+ at the end of a year. A good, quality Service Dog vest runs between $25.00 to $75.00, and many can be found for less.
If you have questions regarding the fit of some gear, or if you find signs of chaffing or other injury caused by wear on your dog, bring your gear to your next veterinarian appointment. If you have questions, he or she may be able to help.
You also want to know if any tasks you ask your partner to perform are safe for the long haul. Things to consider that may be dangerous for the dog are so simple that that they can easily be overlooked. Fast examples include the items that you ask your partner to pick up or retrieve for you. Bare medication bottles, cigarette lighters, batteries, and the like can be downright fatal if “Chomped” upon, or swallowed by accident. Coins aren’t far from being on that list. Use clear thinking and have your partner’s longevity and safety when asking your partner to perform tasks. Your Veterinarian is an outstanding resource for questions.
8) Evaluate your partner and yourself
It’s very easy to become complaisant. A good way to combat that is to evaluate yourself, your partner, and both of you as a team every 6 months to a year. Ask yourself questions like, “Am I being consistent?” or “Can my timing be better?”
Go ahead and look back on where you were a year ago. Were you good at educating “Joe Public”? Were you strong and smart when access was denied? Did you handle any access denial calmly and effectively? Did you understand the law enough to educate others? Were you embarrassed about how your dog behaved in a particular situation? Were there any moments in which you were especially proud? You Click and Treat your dogs, take time to find a healthy way to do it for yourself too. Look for where you can improve. Don’t beat yourself up.
Now’s a great time to plan the future of your team, in baby steps. Get out a calendar and make plans for next week, next month and next year. Set goals that are S.M.A.R.T.: Simple, Measurable, Action oriented, Realistic and Time sensitive.
9) Be ready to defend your rights
Keep in mind that when a Service Dog handler faces an access issue, they not are defending their dog — but their civil rights as dictated by federal and state government. Under the law, people have rights. Dogs do not. It is a good idea to carry and be very familiar with the current standards (ADA + State + Local) Service Dog Laws.
10) Document everything
Our mantra is document, document, document. All Service Dogs should have a clear list of identifiable trained tasks or work. That list should not include any natural behavior such as comforting or their calming presence. You should be prepared to tell others what task or work your dog performs. We highly suggest keeping a notebook or a blog as a log or record of your training dates and accomplishments. It will not only serve to help you during the training process but will also serve as a useful paper trail for your Service or Assistance Dog.
Record your training on video — especially your dog completing the Public Access Test. Most wireless phones can make this easier than ever before! Create a list of all of the behaviors and areas your Service Dog really excels in. Also, document on video as many successful tasks as you can. It’s time to make a highlight reel!
On the flip side of that coin, document every access issue or employment discrimination to the hilt. Video if you can get it, written accounts, dates, times, all of the details. Discrimination either in access or employment is illegal under federal law. Know your rights. Know where to get help if you need it.
Above and beyond all else, always strive to be the best you — the best Service Dog Team — you can be. Keep trying new things, keep it fun, and keep it interesting! And remember, leave nothing but an excellent impression.