The adventures of SD Juno and SDIT Kaline (and their human, Colt).

18 March 2014

Criteria for Graduation

A friend and I were talking about how you know it's time to graduate your service dog in training to full service dog status, so I thought I'd do a post about it.

One thing that makes a big difference is whether your state gives the same access rights to handlers with SDITs as with SDs. Since California, our state, treats SDITs and SDs the same according to the law, there is no incentive for me, or any other handler, to rush graduation. I think that's a great argument for all states giving SDIT handlers more rights, but that's another discussion. In states where SDITs have limited or no access rights, one might lower the graduation standards to the minimum, just to have the benefit of the dog's help in more areas.

I'm not talking about graduation standards for anyone but myself. (Just wanted to make that clear.) Right now, I hardly ever remember to actually put Kaline's in training tag on whatever gear he's wearing. But if anyone asks, I will say he's in training. Sometimes, when we're working on a new skill or working through a problem, it's pretty obvious to anyone looking that he's in training. But a lot of the time, at least in harness, he's really starting to act the part of a full SD. (At home and off duty, he can still be a crazy boy.)

Here are some of the things I'll be looking to see before I'll officially graduate Kaline. No hard and fast numbers or anything, just a general idea.

Treats: Do I feel dependent on my treat bag, or can I accidentally leave it in the car and still feel like Kaline will do what he needs to? If the answer to the first part is yes, definitely not ready to graduate. At this point, I try to remember the bag just in case, but I've forgotten it several times and not felt remotely panicky. And Kaline has done everything he's been asked to do. So no, we are no longer treat-dependent for known/proofed skills.

Distractions: This is probably our hardest area. Kaline still wants to make googly eyes at people, especially if they talk to him. He also is still very interested in/distracted by children who are either loud or moving abruptly. He is generally good at ignoring being touched by strangers, although we are working on desensitizing him to being touched on the rear. He was fine with that until very recently, and now all of a sudden, if someone touches his butt, he has an out-of-proportion startle response. Recovers quickly though. Food distractions are not an issue. He doesn't go for food he sees around, and he doesn't beg from the table. Animal distractions ... well, I know small prey animals aren't a big issue because a squirrel basically ran under his feet the other day and he just looked at it interestedly for a second and then moved on. Other dogs, however, he still wants to look at for more than a second, and if the other dog is doing something interesting, like pulling toward Kaline or lunging at him, Kay can definitely lose his focus. This is a main reason why I feel Kaline is not ready for graduation.

General public behavior: I'm really quite pleased with Kaline's recent improvements in this area, especially when he's asked to lie down, settle, and be unobtrusive. His popups have decreased a lot. He's not rattled by much of anything, including, as I discovered a week or so ago, exceedingly loud screams at hockey arenas. He hardly ever sniffs inappropriately, and remains focused on his job most of the time. He definitely has a working mode and understands he has to meet higher standards of behavior when in harness. Basically, he acts professional. Different people have different definitions of what “professional” is ... Mine is a little fuzzy, but basically I want anyone looking at him to know, just by his demeanor, that he is a working dog. And now, they do (most of the time. Some people are just dense, what can you do?). Still, I don't feel the same way about him in public as I do Juno. She is my rock, and he just is not quite there yet. Still a bit higher maintenance, if that makes sense. Building that kind of bond and trust takes a very, very long time—we're almost there, I think.

Tasks: Before I graduate a dog, I want him/her to be able to do all of his tasks promptly and correctly the vast majority of the time. If Kaline needs a little extra help occasionally with accuracy on handicap buttons, I don't consider that a huge issue (for someone with a different disability, it might be a big deal). But when I need DPT, he is on it, no problem, no matter what position I'm in. If I ask him to do stairs, up or down, he's almost always doing it right. (Yes, we are still practicing the various components of going down stairs properly.) Momentum pull is practically perfect. His retrieve is getting pretty reliable, although it needs to be better before he graduates. Helping around the house in the kitchen is excellent, probably because we practice several times a day out of necessity. Kaline cannot learn counterbalance tasks until he is cleared by an orthopedic vet after his second birthday. So having that clearance will be a big milestone indicating graduation is near. I don't think the counterbalance tasks will be too hard for him to learn, but we'll have to get them solid before I will graduate him.

Maturity/endurance: This is a big reason why I think any dog under 18 months of age cannot, by definition, be called a full service dog. As a puppy or adolescent, a dog cannot handle day after day of full-time work without burning out. Burning out is kind of a subjective term, but to me it means a dog loses its drive to work and/or no longer enjoys their work. Puppies and adolescents have bouts of silliness, as well as teenage asshole moments—things that are expected and understandable in a SDIT, but pretty much unacceptable in full SDs. (I say “pretty much” because obviously even adult SDs are not robots, and can have bad days on occasion.) Kaline at this point does have the ability to be a full-time SD, at least for my lifestyle. Being a full-time SD for me involves a lot of off-duty time, given that dogs are my life. It also involves some day-long events, and Kaline has proven he can handle those too. Maturity ... Well, he at least manages to act mature when he's on duty. I guess it doesn't matter terribly much that he acts like a complete idiot sometimes on his own time!

None of this means that training stops. Training NEVER stops, not for service dog teams who want to stay sharp. We will always be working on our weak points, always trying to spice things up with new behaviors whether disability-related or not, and you never know what tasks you might need to teach in the future.

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