Mission Pawsable: The Challenges of Raising a Service Dog

Mission Pawsable: The Challenges of Raising a Service Dog

Yael, a 2 year old yellow lab, has just begun to fulfill his mission in life.  He has been groomed since birth to become a service dog.  My husband Alan and I got to play a part in Yael’s journey when we volunteered to become his foster parents.
For one-and-a-half years we raised him, trained him, socialized him and, of course,  loved him. As hard as it is for me to admit – as I am by no means a natural animal lover – he  became our baby.  Unlike a child, however, he came with a manual of instructions, which adorned the table in our den for the 19 months that Yael was with us.  Unlike the typical coffee-table book – which sits there  looking pretty as it waits for someone to turn its pages in admiration – this compendium of rules had its pages read and reread as we learned the new language of dog training.
Alan and I discovered and played out our totally different parenting styles.  Like a child, Yael quickly learned with whom he could  get away with what.  Although he was not allowed to jump (according to the rules) when Alan came through the door, Yael was right there displaying his  most primal acts of excitement – jumping and playfully attacking him with loads of good slobber  and love.  Of course, Alan ate it up.  In contrast, when I walked in the door, Yael stood attentively looking up at me as I petted him using the praise the book dictated: “Good stay.”
Before long, both of us had softened, and the dog wound up in bed with us every morning, right in between us.  I loved how soft and cuddly he was – his bottom half became my morning pillow.
Wherever we went, Yael’s yellow cape and appearance in public places that were otherwise off-limits to dogs piqued people’s interest. From the beginning, our friends and neighbors were incredulous at our decision to raise him. “You guys are nuts!  How could you take an adorable dog like this knowing you have to give him back?”  We gave the standard response outlining our dedication to the greater cause, but the explanation generally fell on skeptical ears: “Wait till the time comes – you will hope he fails so you can keep him.”  Having no prior experience as pet owners, at first we couldn’t fathom a connection to an animal strong enough to engender fantasies of kidnapping, as had been  half-jokingly suggested by our friends.  All we saw and felt was the work his care entailed – we were not too concerned about the return policy.
My hope in taking on Yael’s training as a project was for him to pass and be placed as a service dog/companion to someone with a disability. That is, after all, how I got involved with the service animal community to begin with.  Having a daughter with disabilities, I initially thought such a dog might be a  good idea for her. But after reading about service animals, I wasn’t sure in her case if an assistance dog would be a good idea. If the dog learned to retrieve things for her, to open doors and turn on lights, would this assistance promote laziness and enable her to become even more of a couch potato? Would a service dog be counterproductive to our years of hard work in fostering her independence?
But I still wanted to be involved in helping other people with disabilities get service animals. In reading about the agency Canine Companions for Independence (CCI), I learned we could be puppy raisers.  To be a part of raising a dog who might go on to help a person with a disability felt like a very meaningful endeavor. Admittedly, it also tapped into an unfulfilled childhood desire – as a child, my pleas to my mother for a dog had always been answered with, “When you move into your own house you can have a dog.”  Now that I had, I wanted to finally give it a try.  (Ironically, the first and only shoe Yael ever chewed, at two-and-a-half months of age, was my mother’s.)
We grew to  enjoy and love Yael, but with our very busy schedules,  we soon worried that we could not put in all the time needed to properly train him.  We fell short of our goal to practice the necessary commands on a daily basis, and my hope for his passing started to fade. Indeed, at our introduction into the program we had been told that more than half of the dogs enrolled do not ultimately get accepted as service animals due to physical, temperament or personality flaws.
When the time came to return Yael to the agency, it was naturally very difficult, as predicted by all who knew of our endeavor.  We watched as he was led away toward his new crate with his new roommate.  He was beautifully slim and sleek, as we had followed the rules of his diet perfectly so that he was just the  right  weight.  He stood  outside the crate looking back at us. Did he know this was good-bye?  Alan’s tears spoke for us all.
As the weeks passed without our receiving a phone call, we adopted a no-news-is-good-news mentality, assuming the silence meant he was still in the program.  I started becoming hopeful, surprised at his success.  I really hadn’t thought he would make it, although Alan had always believed he had a good chance because of his wonderful nature.
Over the next few months, we received positive report cards and had several phone conferences about Yael’s progress, all very favorable. Our boy was doing well. I started envisioning graduation day, walking him down the aisle and up onto the stage, handing him over to his new family. But I still had to rein myself in from this rush of good feelings, knowing that until the moment he was actually matched with a family, he could fail and be released for any number reasons. Even a flaw as mild as fearfulness in a new environment – such as hesitation when walking on a new grating in the sidewalk – would be enough to release him.
Five months after we returned Yael, his graduation announcement arrived in the mail.  Our mission was accomplished and he was about to embark on his new path.  I felt like a parent whose child had just been accepted to Harvard.  We were going to see him again, one last time, to officially hand him over to his new  partner – an 11-year-old boy from Pennsylvania who had cerebral palsy.  Yael was to begin a new life, making a difference for this child as a helper and friend.   Could there have been any mission greater for him – or for us?

ABILITY Magazine

December 2006


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