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Training Dempsey, My Parkinson’s Service Dog

training-dempsey-my-parkinsons-service-dog

Training Dempsey, My Parkinson’s Service Dog

Written by Brian Reedy

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.

Dempsey Tall

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.

Puppy Dempsey

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.

Alex and Dempsey
That’s Alex, a Davis Phinney Foundation staff member giving Dempsey lots of love at The Victory Summit® event

 

#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.

Dempsey Parkinson's Dog goes shopping

 

#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.

Dempsey with Pig

 

#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!

8 Comments on “Training Dempsey, My Parkinson’s Service Dog

    • Geoffrey Phillips

      February 8, 2018 at 1:37 pm Reply

      This information is very good to know and to pass on to others who may have more immediate needs than I have at this time.
      I don’t know how my service dog could help me to take my meds on time. I do in fact have a real need in that respect.

      • Alex Reinhardt

        March 6, 2018 at 12:53 pm Reply

        Service dogs can be trained to retrieve medications as well as fetch a bottle of water to help a person to swallow their medications. While helpful, if this is your only need at the current time, a service dog may not be a good fit just yet. However, I would encourage you to look up a service dog organization in your area to learn more about how a service dog may be able to help with other symptoms or down the road. Since the wait lists for these organizations can be long, it never hurts to start an application early!

    • dawn kromer

      February 11, 2018 at 6:51 am Reply

      I love your story. I just recently lost my chocolate lab Murphy. He wasn’t my service dog but he was my best buddy and confidant. He got me through the worst days of my Parkinson’s. I am so torn on wether or not I want to get another dog. Murphy was only 6 years old and my heart is heavy, I miss him so much.

      • Alex Reinhardt

        March 5, 2018 at 3:21 pm Reply

        I’m so sorry to hear about Murphy. It sounds like he was a wonderful companion and a great dog. Give yourself time to process this terrible loss and honor Murphy. You may not be ready to welcome a new dog in your home just yet, but if you are considering a service dog, I would begin the application process now as it will take some time before they have a match for you.

    • Kevin Schmid

      February 25, 2018 at 12:37 pm Reply

      I was diagnosed with PD 4 Year’s ago and am strongly considering a service dog to be part of my team for the same reasons you have listed. I have had dogs in the past; however, i’m Not sure what is best for me. Training him myself or trying to get him trained.

      • Alex Reinhardt

        March 6, 2018 at 3:16 pm Reply

        There are numerous factors to consider with either option. Long wait times and cost are major deterrents but you will be receiving an animal who has been properly trained by professionals to work with your Parkinson’s. However, by training an animal yourself, you must first build a firm foundation of basic commands, house training, and prepare them for the many sights, sounds, smells that a service animal experiences. This process takes time, patience, and dedication. Once the foundation is created, training your animal as a service animal will require daily diligence to ensure they are properly learning their tasks. Make sure to evaluate how much time and energy you will have prior to adopting your puppy. Thanks for commenting!

    • Karen St Clair

      March 5, 2018 at 4:03 pm Reply

      Hi Alex:
      What a fun story. We bought Zelda two years ago as a service dog, but she failed Assistance Dogs of the SW intake interview. She’s very smart and knows lots of commands, however, and I’m wondering if training her ourselves is the way to go. If so, how do you get certification or do you need it? Thanks!

      • Alex Reinhardt

        March 14, 2018 at 10:52 am Reply

        Thanks for sharing, Karen. There isn’t any federal certification that can indicate your dog is a service animal. So whether you train Zelda yourself or receive a service dog through a organization, you won’t receive any official document that proves it’s certified. It’s best to carry documentation stating disability and up-to-date veterinary records.

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