Did you know that in the United States it is completely legal to train your own service dog? Did you know that, legally, a service dog does not have to wear a vest or possess other identification? Did you know that service dogs can be absolutely any breed of dogs? Did you know that there is no certification for service dogs? I learned all of this and more 4 years ago when I began my search for answers in an attempt to find the perfect service dog for me.
June 7, 2015—My husband, our friends and I visited a German Shepherd breeder with the idea that I’d attempt to get the puppy trained as a service dog but with no established, set-in-stone plans. We arrived at the breeder’s home where we met the parent dogs and 9 little fluff balls who were just about 11 weeks old. Out of the 9, some were terrified of my wheelchair, while some were hesitantly curious and willing to sniff. Then there was the tiniest of all the puppies who was not only unafraid but also determined that he was going to climb my wheelchair and get himself in my lap. I picked him up, he kissed me and then went to sleep in my lap. I knew then that this dog was meant for me. We brought him home and named him Surf.
The next day while my husband was at work, the reality of how challenging this was going to be set in. I had never trained a dog in my life and really had no idea where to begin, especially if I wanted him to be a service dog someday. I knew it would be hard and I certainly had my doubts, but I wanted to make this work, so after calling the ADA hotline at the Department of Justice to make sure I knew exactly what the law says regarding service dogs and owner training, I did what any other 30 something-year-old needing information does, I searched YouTube for answers. Through lots of trial and error, over the next several weeks, Surf and I began to figure it all out.
By the time Surf was 4 months old, he was walking on the leash next to or in front of my wheelchair without going under it. He knew “sit,” “ come,” “lay down,” and "stay" in addition to “clothes on” and “get naked,” which are our cues for when it is time to put the harness on and take it off.
Although I didn’t know much about how to train Surf, I did know that I was absolutely doing it without force, fear or pain. Since day one, he has been trained with positive reinforcement, wearing a harness when he’s leashed, with no choke or prong collars of any kind. All of Surf’s training was done through play and by 9 months old, he was opening doors, using the ice and water dispenser on our fridge, and beginning to pick items up for me when I pointed.
Today Surf is an active 4-year-old dog who loves to play and help mommy. I have lost track of how many tasks Surf can do. In addition to knowing the name of certain items including phone, Chuck It, sunglasses, water bottle, shoes and more, he can also assist me when I fall and act as a crutch when I begin to lose my balance, flush toilets (he taught himself that one much to my surprise) and so much more.
I’m so thankful every day for the person at the DOJ who took the time to speak with me in order to educate me on the laws, my friends who helped me find the breeder, and most of all, I’m thankful for Surf, who is not only there to keep me safe and let me live the most independent life possible, but also to teach me that persistence pays off and that anything is possible.
If anyone wants to learn more about Surf and our adventures, some of which have been hilarious as he’s a complete goofball, check out our Facebook page, Life with Surf.
Image credit: Me