It’s official! Yesterday Rocky became a bona fide, full-fledged service dog, complete with an ID badge and a certified letter stating she had successfully completed training and passed the test conducted by American Service Dogs.
This is a first for both of us. The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) does not have a set standard for the testing of service dogs. It does require that the person using a service dog have a disability, and that the dog must perform specific tasks to assist with that disability. It is completely legal to train your own dog to assist with your disability; you do not have to use a professional trainer or agency. Ripley and I did our training on our own, with guidance from some in the field, and some very good training manuals. But when it was time for her to retire, I knew I wanted to use a professional agency, because I didn’t have the luxury of starting off with a puppy – my disabilities were now more severe, I needed a dog to step in more quickly, and I wanted help in the transition process from one dog to the next.
American Service Dogs, and in particular their head trainer, Jared Latham, gave me everything I needed to make that possible. The training was supposed to take 20 weeks, or about five months. We took quite a bit longer. That was due to a number of factors. In June last year, I left for a month to go to California, and although I worked with Rocky in those summer months, she didn’t actually come to live with me until August, after another short trip to California. Then we were involved in a lot of home remodeling, which sometimes interfered with our training schedule at the kennel. And I was also managing the tough process of easing Ripley out of her role as my service dog. But by December, Rocky had taken over all service dog duties. And despite the fact that we didn’t always make it to class, she was getting a major education in public access, going everywhere with me. She not only accompanied me on the little day-to-day outings (dining out, store runs, doctor appointments, etc.), by the date of her test, she had flown to California and back twice, taken a Greyhound to Albuquerque, and gone on several long car trips. I had no doubts about her ability to be out in the world.
Still, as we headed out for our test yesterday, I was nervous. I’m a perfectionist, and I wanted everything to go just right. Last week, Sabrina and I went to Mesilla Valley Mall and did a practice run, and Rocky was perfectly in sync with me, acing everything. But she sometimes acts differently in front of Jared, because he used to be her trainer, and she’s not sure who to look at – him or me.
We went to the Barnes & Noble at the university campus for the test. First thing on the list, we tested “touch,” and Rocky nailed it, pushing the button to open the front door. Then we went inside to the cafe, and I gave her the command “under” as I sat down at a table. She went underneath and laid down, again right on cue. So far, so good.
We did a few more quick commands downstairs. “Handle and massage” – the dog should be able to be handled, her paws inspected, mouth opened, tail tugged, etc. “Get dressed” – stand at attention while the handler puts on the dog’s service vest, eager and ready to go to work. “Calm” – get the dog excited, then give her a command to go into a calm mode. Again, all no problem. Then, she got to ride the escalator to go upstairs, which she loves. Lots of tail wagging.
I won’t go through the whole test. There are about 35 commands, including long-term (10 minute) sit-stays and down-stays at a distance of 100 feet, a final down-stay that is even longer, and numerous moving commands at heel, with variations such as “hurry,” “easy,” an automatic sit when you stop, etc. There were only two that she hesitated on. Initially, she didn’t respond to “lap,” when I am sitting and she is supposed to put her front feet into my lap – which was crazy, because it’s one of her favorite commands. But I think it was because the chair had arms, and it threw her off. I tried it again on a bench, and she aced it. And we flubbed the “sit,” “come,” ‘stay” using hand signals only, because I hadn’t practiced that; I do use hand signals, but always in conjunction with voice, so we need to work on that.
Jared gave us a pass. Hooray! This by no stretch of the imagination means that the training is over. Ripley and I grew as a handler/service dog team throughout our years together, and it will be the same with me and Rocky. Passing this test means we have our foundation laid; the basic and advanced obedience skills are all there, and Rocky has a firm handle on public access. Now we can move forward with fine tuning behavior, and start teaching her more and more skills to help me directly with my disability.
Yay, Rocky! Rocky the Rock Star!