In my last post I talked about researching the difference between emotional support animals and service dogs, how we made the determination of what would be the best kind of dog for my situation and why I decided to train him myself. You can read that post here.
In this post I want to share what I’ve done to train my service dog Dempsey, the most important advice I’ve been given and some resources that would be useful to you should you choose to train your own Parkinson’s service dog.
If you’re wondering if a service dog would be right for you, here are some of the amazing things that a service dog can do for a person with Parkinson’s:
- Help maintain a comfortable walking rate or gait
- Help with balance and forward momentum
- Prevent freezing
- Help initiate movement when freezing occurs
- Help prevent falls
- Get help if a fall occurs
- Provide quiet and genuine companionship
- Help with depression and anxiety
- Help promote exercise through daily walks and playing
- Help to assure medications are taken (and on time)
If you want to see a couple of cool Parkinson’s service dogs in action, check out this video where you can see two dogs helping their people with Parkinson’s.
When we first looked into the idea of getting a service dog to help me with my Parkinson’s, we weren’t sure if we could afford one or that even if we could, if we wanted to wait years to get one. So, we decided to find and train the dog ourselves. It’s working out pretty great so far.
I don’t want to suggest that it’s easy to train a dog and deal with Parkinson’s while still trying to accomplish other things in my life, but it’s definitely proving to be worth it.
I got Dempsey when he was seven weeks old and that helped a lot. He didn’t have to unlearn much and he easily bonded with me because I became his parent and provider.
Over the past few months I’ve been amazed at what he’s learned, how far we’ve come as a team and how much I count on him for my quality of life.
With the help of my own research and advice from other experts, here are nine actions I’ve taken with Dempsey that have made all the difference and that I would recommend to anyone training their own service dog.
#1 – Socialize
Socialize your dog to all types of sights, sounds and experiences as soon as possible, in as comfortable a way as possible.
To do this I bring Dempsey on car rides, expose him to boundaries in the house and in the yard, acquaint him to some less than pleasant sounds and introduce him to a lot of different people in a variety of settings.
The goal is to help him get comfortable with these sights and sounds when he’s a puppy so he doesn’t become anxious or apprehensive when he encounters these sights and sounds in the future.
For a great checklist on how to socialize your service dog, go here.
#2 – Reinforce with a Word or Clicker in a Consistent Manner
As you teach a new dog desired behaviors, I was taught to use the word “nice” as a command right before I gave him a treat.
It may seem excessive, but it works. The consistent rewarding and word reinforcement helps, and sooner than you might think. Using a word is the same as using a clicker, but since my dexterity isn’t what it used to be, a voice command is easier for me to perform quickly.
Also, when you reinforce behaviors, it’s more effective to focus on positive reinforcement and to refrain from yelling or raising your voice with your dog.
#3 – Teach Potty on Demand
It’s important to teach a service dog to do their business on ANY type of surface. The best time to do this is early in the morning when they really have to go. As always, praise them significantly when they do it correctly. This takes time. Rocks, roadways and concrete were more of a challenge for him to master but teaching him to go on demand has been possible with patience and persistence.
A good rule of thumb is to teach your dog to relieve himself within two and half minutes of being given the command, within three feet of where you’re holding him on a leash and on any surface.
#4 – Give Lots of Love
In a perfect world, people would see a service dog vest on your dog and leave it alone. But that’s not what happens; so, you have to prepare your dog to be touched. I do this by handling him a lot, touching every part of his body and giving him lots of love. This way, when a doctor or child or very curious adult wants to give him lots of love too, he doesn’t get defensive. Clearly Dempsey is thrilled with the attention.
#5 – Take Your Dog Everywhere with You… Almost
Ideally you would take your dog everywhere with you so that it becomes used to being in all of the different places you have to visit. However, there are some exceptions. For example, if your dog is not very well-trained and does not respond quickly to ALL of your cues and commands, you can be asked to leave a location or place of business for not complying with the ADA standards for service dogs. There are some areas where even service dogs are not allowed to go such as sterile environments like procedure and operating rooms, places where computer chips are manufactured and others.
It’s a good idea to have a service dog conversation with your doctors and places you frequent to give them a heads up that going forward you will be accompanied by your service dog. They can’t tell you that you can’t bring the dog; however, they may require that you bring a second handler for the time that you’re in the treatment room or some other location in the office. It’s best to get this cleared up ahead of time so that you get the care you need while also keeping a positive relationship with the people and places you visit.
#6 – Use a Crate
Dogs actually like going into their crate. They’re happy and safe places for them to be. The trick is to reinforce their desire to go into their crate by teaching them that it’s their “kennel” from the very beginning. Fill it with a couple of toys and a comfy dog bed so it feels like home. Then each and EVERY time you want them to go into it, say “kennel.” Eventually you’ll be able to use the word “kennel” to teach it to go under the table when you’re in a restaurant, or under a chair at the doctor’s office waiting room, which has proven to be very useful to me.
#7 – Make Your Dog Feel at Home
Make a comfortable place for your dog to be in places you frequent, especially in your house. For example, in my office and in my garage I have a little mat for Dempsey to lay on with a place to tie him down in case he suddenly jumps up or has the urge to get into stuff. Once he’s strong enough to follow commands and stay, he won’t need to be tied down.
#8 – Keep Learning
I’m having fun and learning a lot by watching guide dogs for the blind training videos on youtube. There are many helpful suggestions for people who are training their own service dogs and inspiring stories about dogs and their owners.
#9 – Keep Your Papers Close
Technically you don’t have to have any papers or documentation with you regarding your service dog; however, I find it helpful to carry certain papers to help in case there’s some confusion. Since I have a 100% disability with the Veterans Administration (VA), I sometimes carry my 100% disability letter. I also carry my dog’s vaccination records. Recently some business have been clamping down on what they allow in as service animals, so it’s more convenient to have them with me.
Training Dempsey has turned out to be one of the great joys of my life. He’s my buddy in all things, I can always count on him to be there and he’s been a great addition to my care team. If you’re considering getting and training your own service dog, please feel to reach out to me via the comments section. I’d love to help in any way I can. And the great plus to all of this is that I’m doing better overall and have more time to relax with my wife (who is my most amazing care partner in all of this)!
CONNECT WITH AN AMBASSADOR
Among other things, Brian Reedy is a retired teacher and now, a dog trainer. He’s also part of our cohort of Davis Phinney Foundation Ambassadors. Our Ambassadors are volunteers who share resources and information throughout their local and regional communities to help people take action and improve their quality of life with Parkinson’s. Connect with one of our Ambassadors and begin your journey today of living well with Parkinson’s!