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Training My Own PTSD Service Dog

A Little Background About me

My name is Steven and I am 54. I have multiple physiological and psychological issues and have been on disability since 1994. I have had anxiety/panic and depression issues throughout my life. I have had various diagnoses depending on the doctor at the time, but they more or less followed the same theme.

As time went by, I would go through periods where I did fairly well and times when I was affected and quite limited by these issues. My overall trend though was getting progressively worse where I was avoiding things that caused me to have anxiety and panic attacks. That worked well for a while (a number of years actually), but as time went on, the list of things that caused me to have anxiety and panic issues grew. I kept up my avoidance behavior as I learned what did and did not cause me anxiety.

What started in the beginning as helpful, changed into something that became limiting. I was becoming anxious about so many things that I started to develop agoraphobia where I would only leave the house when I absolutely had to and then only for very short trips to the market or the doctor, etc. This trend continued and I began to develop a social phobia where I couldn’t be around people for any length of time without it causing me great anxiety. The only place I felt safe was when I was at home.

This didn’t help my depression at all, but getting out caused extreme anxiety, so I was caught trying to decide which was the least of the two evils. I have never been particularly social, but there was a time when I did enjoy getting out and doing things.

A lot of the major shift really started taking hold after I bought the house where I am now living. That was in 2006. After the first year, I really started to stay home most of the time and I didn’t have many visitors either. I had my dogs and they kept me company and gave me comfort. I have always known how beneficial animals and in particular, dogs are for people and my dogs were of great help to me. They were always there and never judged me. They gave me love and attention. I would often take one of them with me in my truck when I had to go to the store or something like that to help keep me as calm as possible for as long as possible. Because my dogs were pets, I knew I couldn’t take them into the places I had to go, so I had an alarm installed in my truck, I also had an auto-start/run package added so that I could have the A/C on and the truck running so that my dogs would be comfortable while I was in the store. I could remote start the truck and have it locked and all of the controls in the truck were not functional in this mode so there was no possibility of the dog accidentally putting it in gear or something. That was one of the best decisions I had made.

As time progressed, my world started getting smaller and smaller to the point where I just stayed at home and maybe 2 or 3 times a month, I would go out briefly to the store (only because I ran out of something). At the same time, because I was not getting out, my depression was worsening. I was going down into a deep dark hole and I didn’t know how to stop it. The medications I was taking were only helpful to a point and could only see things getting progressively worse.

Early in 2013, for reasons I still don’t understand, a lot of memories from my childhood started coming up. Through those memories and through therapy, I was diagnosed with  Complex PTSD. The more memories that came, the more things and behaviors in my life started to make sense. Before this, I just had anxiety/panic and depression with no known cause.

When I was diagnosed is also when I learned about Psychiatric Service Dogs. Up until that point, I only knew about the better-known sight, hearing and mobility dogs. I also knew about Therapy Dogs used in hospitals and nursing homes and helping children with reading and emotional issues.

Always being a dog lover and having them most of my life, I was very interested in checking into getting a Service Dog for my PTSD. I was lucky and ran into a man with his PTSD Service Dog who was training with someone who specialized in training dogs for people with “invisible disabilities”. He gave me her card and I contacted her. It turned out that she only lived about 4 miles from me and she had started doing this because she herself had PTSD and other health issues.

I, of course, was very excited to hear about this and so I went to meet with her and learn about her program and more about Psychiatric Service Dogs.

I only knew of Service Dogs that were trained at a training facility and then purchased or given to someone who needed them. The dogs were trained for the individual’s particular disability.

I knew that I couldn’t afford to get a pre-trained Service Dog and since I was not in the military, I didn’t qualify for any assistance through any VA source.

The trainer that I spoke to said that some of her clients found their dogs through Craigslist or got them from local animal shelters. I decided to try that route since I had a lot of experience from my 10 years of volunteering as a Dog Walker at the local  SPCA where I used to live and my experience having dogs since childhood. I knew how to train dogs as pets, so I knew with the proper guidance, I could train a service dog myself which is what I wanted. I wanted to be involved from the start. Training your own dog strengthens the bond between you and your dog.

My Hunt for a Service Dog

I started my hunt for a suitable service dog…one that is under a year of age to get the maximum amount of time from the dog for service work and one that had the right temperament. I found a couple of dogs and tried them out. It turned out that they were not a good match for me, but my trainer was able to place them as Service Dogs in Training with some of her other clients that were also looking for a service dog. They worked out perfectly for them.

It is very important to match the dog to your lifestyle. If you are active, then a sedentary breed wouldn’t be the best choice for you, and the reverse is true. The trainer gives a temperament test to any prospective dog to make sure that they would be appropriate for service dog work. If you get a puppy, there is a puppy temperament test that is commonly used called the  Volhard Puppy Aptitude Test which is given at 7 weeks of age.

After my two not so successful attempts at finding a rescue dog to be my service dog, I decided that I would start saving up money to be able to purchase a puppy. Being on an SSDI income, it is difficult to be able to save very quickly and so I started selling things that I had to raise the money for a dog.

I had decided that I wanted a Golden Retriever because they are my favorite breed and they are often used in service work because of their temperament.

Choosing a Breeder

Choosing a good breeder is of the utmost importance, especially when you are looking to get a service dog. I contacted the local  Golden Retriever Club and asked for breeders that had or would be having puppies. I was given a number of breeders to contact. There are usually local clubs that specialize in specific in most areas, so if there is a specific breed that you are interested in, you can check into a club that is local to you. Keep in mind that some breeds are more suited for service dog work than others. The size or the breed doesn’t matter. There are service dogs that go from Shih Tzu’s to Saint Bernard’s and everything in between. The key is the proper temperament. You want to get a dog that has a nice even temperament that isn’t too shy or too aggressive. You want a confident dog. Some things can be taught, but the dog needs to have the right basics to start with or you will not have any luck in training them as a service dog.

When you contact the breeders, you want to tell then that you are interested in this dog to be a service dog. I will warn you upfront that some breeders don’t like to deal with that. I don’t understand their reasoning, but they are out there. If you understand the breed enough to know that they generally have the right temperament for service work, then I leave it up to you whether you tell the breeder the dog will be used as a service dog or not.

Hopefully, you will find a breeder that doesn’t have any problems with placing one of their puppies for service work and will work with you to help you pick the right puppy out of a litter. I was very lucky with the breeders I chose. I chose to tell them I was looking for a puppy to be my service dog and they had placed service dogs before, so they were great with it. I also chose them because they used techniques of raising their puppies from the Puppy Prodigy Program where the puppies are handled from day one and as they grow are introduced to new sights and sounds and are socialized with trusted people (usually friends of the breeders) to get the dogs used to new things. They played sounds of thunderstorms and traffic noises to get them used to those things.

They brought me in at week 4 to start to socialize the puppies and get to know each of them and watch them as they progressed. It was my hope as well as the hope of my trainer, the breeders that a puppy would choose me because the bond with a service dog, especially a psychiatric service dog is extremely important. I started to go up twice a week from week 4 to week 9 when I brought my puppy home. The other people that were getting puppies out of the litter were brought in a week 5 to help socialize them and so they could see the puppies develop. My breeders went the ultimate step in giving me pick-of-the-litter because I was getting a service dog. I can’t say that would be the rule, but since they were not keeping any of the puppies of this litter, they gave me that choice.

From the very first visit, one particular puppy paid more attention to me than the rest. Yes, they all paid attention to me, but she paid special attention and I had noticed her as well as there was just something about her that I couldn’t put my finger on, but I was drawn to. As the weeks passed, she continued to pay special attention to me. I socialized every puppy and watched them all, but she kept catching my eye. By the 6th week, I was becoming pretty sure she would be the one, but I wanted to give it as much time as I could to be sure because this was such an important decision.

At week 7 (day 49 to be exact), my trainer came up and gave her the Volhard Test and she did great in it as I knew she would. In fact, most of the puppies from that litter I think would have done well in that test because of all of the work that the breeders put into the litter. The puppies were also socialized with the 6 adult dogs the breeders had which are invaluable since dogs can teach each other things that we can’t, like dog etiquette and boundaries and things like that.

After the test, I made my decision known, not that it was any surprise to the breeders. So then they let everyone know which puppy they would be getting. If you have good breeders, they will know the puppies better than anyone else and they will have also taken the time to get to know you and your lifestyle and what you plan to do with your puppy so they can match the right puppy to the right person/family. Everyone was thrilled at the choices the breeders made and of course I was ecstatic.

At week 8, the breeders had their vet come out and give all of the puppies a checkup, dewormed them and gave them their first puppy vaccine. We picked up our puppies just before week 9. I know a lot of people want their puppies as soon as possible, but those early weeks are extremely important to the development of the puppies and to be taken away from their litter-mates too early is not good for them at all. You would be robbing them of lessons that they can only learn there and at that time. After that time, the opportunity is lost…so be patient. Allow the puppies the time they need to be with their litter-mates and mom and don’t take them home too early. You will have a lifetime with them. I can’t stress that enough.

So now, I had my puppy at home. Because your puppy isn’t fully vaccinated, it is critical that you do not let your puppy socialize with any dog that isn’t fully vaccinated and you do not want you puppy to go to a park or anywhere that other dogs go because their immune system isn’t fully developed yet and there are diseases out there that can kill a puppy like Parvovirus.

I checked with my vet to find out what was prevalent in my area and  Parvovirus is, so I literally carried my puppy around everywhere I took her, including to the vet where I didn’t let her touch the floor. I wanted to give her exposure to as many things as possible as early as possible but in a safe way. I took her to my doctor’s office and to my therapist’s office.

I took her in pet-friendly stores where I could put her in the seat of a shopping cart (that, by the way, isn’t covered by the ADA.)  In fact, the  ADA only covers full service dogs, not service dogs in training. Service dogs in training are regulated by each state. In  Oregon where I live, for instance, they have given the exact same rights/privileges to service dogs in training as full service dogs which is a wonderful thing as real-world experience is the best experience. You do have to know your dog though, and it is up to you to be responsible to your dog as well as the public and not create a bad situation by either taking your dog/puppy into an unsafe environment or if your dog exhibits any kind of aggressive behavior, you need to have that completely under control BEFORE you take your dog out into public. That is not to say, you won’t have instances where your dog barks a couple of times. In fact, sometimes, a service dog is trained to bark to alert their partner of a medical issue or in the case of a hearing dog, to let the partner that there is someone there. It all depends on each individual situation.

Basic Service Dog Training

Training your dog/puppy is one of the most basic and important things you can do. It will not only teach the dog manners and commands, but it will strengthen the bond between you and your dog. Having a strong bond with a service dog is extremely important.

Take as many classes you need (or want) to teach your dog the basics and to socialize your dog. They can be a lot of fun and don’t be afraid to take the same class more than once. There will always be different dogs in the class and it will give you and your dog that much more experience. I know depending on where you live there might only be a few training resources available to you, but utilize what you have available. If you like training your dog, you can even get into things like Rally or Obedience or Agility for Competition. There are usually AKC or UKC sponsored classes available that are given by local chapters of each organization. Training can be great fun and provide you and your dog a wonderful outlet to enjoy and learn from at the same time.

Besides the AKC and UKC sponsored classes, I know that PetSmart has classes, but I don’t know much about them. Also, so much depends on the trainer, so I can’t blankly say that all PetSmart Classes are good (or bad).

Currently. I have my dog Kaeley enrolled in the AKC STAR Puppy Class given by the local AKC Club. The next class is the CGC (Canine Good Citizen) Class. Your dog does not have to be a purebred to attend those classes and they are not very expensive (usually about $75.00 for an 8-week class which is really quite inexpensive considering that is 8 full hours of training over an 8 week period) but are exceptional beginning classes for both you and your dog.

I have been working with Kaeley quite a bit, especially since she is now fully vaccinated by taking her with me into stores and to my doctors and I have even taken her into the hospital when I was having problems. I only do this because she has already exhibited a lot of basic manners and is of no danger to anyone, other dogs or disruptive to any situation I and taken her to. Be sure, especially in the beginning that you start out slowly and choose places that are safe for your dog. You want all of these experiences to be positive ones. Having a well-socialized dog is extremely important regardless of whether they will be a service dog or a pet.

When her service dog Training officially starts on the 8th of Sept., I will stop socializing her with people and have her concentration solely on me. Because I want to be able to allow her to be a dog as well as a service dog, I am planning to use her service dog vest or harness as the cue to let her know that when the vest is on, she is working and when it is off, she is a dog and can play. Having a “work” and “release” command is also good to have if you just want to have a tag instead of a vest perhaps when it is very hot outside.

Know the Laws

The ADA DOESN’T REQUIRE ANY IDENTIFICATION OR SPECIAL ATTIRE, like a service dog vest. Personally, I like having the service dog vest as it clearly shows that Kaeley is a service dog. My vest has a patch that says, “ Service Dog in Training”. As far as what a business can ask and cannot ask is quite simple. You can only be asked two questions.

  1. Is your dog is a service dog to help you with a disability?
  2. What task does the dog perform?, i.e. the dog alerts me when I am becoming anxious or that my blood sugar is low (for Diabetics), or the dog helps steady me when I am not balanced.

There are many things a dog can be trained to do and they are all dependent on your particular disability and special training in these areas is what differentiates a service dog from a pet dog.

You can find out about ADA Laws at There are also many organizations out there that can be very helpful for information and resources. There are also many organizations that are downright fraudulent and try to take advantage of those who don’t know the laws. DO YOUR HOMEWORK and check things out in as many places as you can. Compare information. Since I am new to the service dog world, I am learning something every day. This is an area where you need to be your own advocate and be able to handle any question that arises, whether it is regarding a challenge or just someone wanting to know about the laws. It is up to you and your comfort level on how in-depth you want to get.

You can be very instrumental in helping people that don’t realize the many types of service dogs that are out there. You might be the first person that they found the courage to approach. Use your new knowledge and the fact that you will gain the attention of many people as you are out with your service dog or service dog in training. With my experience so far, my interaction with people has been really positive. Always present yourself and your dog in a positive way and leave a good impression because you are laying the groundwork for the next Service Dog Team that goes through there. Be a responsible person and keep things like poop bags and moist towels on you whenever you are out. Get a “bait bag” to carry treats. Many of them have additional pockets where you can keep a small supply of cleaning supplies if your dog has an accident in a building. Your dog should be housebroken before ever taking it into any public place, but just like people, dogs can be ill or have needs that just pop up even if you potty your dog regularly and you need to be able to take care of it. You can also carry treats to help with training your dog in these bags. I have found them to be invaluable and always have mine on when I take Kaeley out.

There are a number of organizations that can be very helpful in providing resource information, member support through hosting a private support listserv (which acts sort of like a Forum but sends out individual emails as each post is made), legislative notices and involvement as well as numerous other benefits. I belong to a group called Psychiatric Service Dog Partners (PSDP). They have been extremely supportive and have been a great resource when I have been doing research or wanted advice on certain training techniques. They are becoming a non-profit organization and basically already run like one. They are free to join, you only need to email them and they will call you and tell you about the organization and see if they would be of benefit to you. I wouldn’t be nearly as far along if it weren’t for their help and the help of my trainers.

Training yourself, with the help of a trainer or have your dog trained

You can train your service dog yourself, train your dog with the help of a trainer or have your dog trained for you. Each one of those options has its own advantages and costs. Obviously training the dog yourself is the least expensive option and if you are confident in your abilities and do your homework, you can find books and DVDs on the subject and train your dog so it can pass the  Public Access Test (PAT). THERE IS NO REASON THAT YOU CANNOT  TRAIN YOUR OWN SERVICE DOG. Just like you can train your dog to sit or lay down, you can train it to do what you need it to do for your particular disability, whether it is to alert you to increasing anxiety or to take your medication or you need it to steady you or pick up something you dropped. All of that behavior is trainable. I am not an expert on how all of it works, especially the more medical side of training, but I do know that dogs sense things we ourselves don’t. They can detect different odors that could signal a drop in blood sugar for instance. They can recognize when you are getting stressed and you can train them to “snap you out of it” or to remove you from the situation/find the nearest exit. You can train them to get between you and someone else that is getting too close to you.

I am using a trainer, Dogs for Invisible Disabilities, to help me because I am somewhat dyslexic and don’t read and retain well and I also have major issues with self-esteem that can take me way down and feel like I am ruining everything when the fact is, everything is fine and I am overreacting. For me personally, having a trainer there to help me and be that third party to be able to see what is really going on is very important. That is me though, and you could be totally fine in those areas. So much of this is individualized. That is another reason I think being involved with the training of your dog is important. It allows you to see exactly what is going into it and how to do it and why certain things work and others don’t. Having a trainer for me also gives me access to different thoughts and from someone with a lot more experience and training than I have.

You can do what I am doing and work with a trainer, but still do most of the work yourself and at the end of the training period, they can administer the PAT.

The last option, which of course it the most expensive is to give your dog to someone to train and return it to you trained and ready for you to do your part of the learning so that you can take the PAT as a team. Just so you know, the PAT is NOT required for service dog work. It is, however, a good measurement of how well you and your dog are doing and if it is truly ready to be a Full Service Dog.

All of this depends on your comfort level and how much research you want to do. I recommend that you learn the laws regardless of how your dog is trained. If you are ever challenged, you need to be able to respond properly and correctly. Knowing your rights and the rights of your service dog is imperative, so doing your homework there is invaluable. I am not saying that you have to become a lawyer, but being well versed in your state laws regarding service dogs in training and service dogs, and knowing the ADA Laws is something that you do need to know.

I am not trying to direct you in any specific direction. I am simply trying to show you the options that exist and tell you why I made the decision that I made. If any of this information is helpful, use it to get what you need…anything else, you can disregard.

One thing to be aware of is that until you and your dog become a Full Service Dog Team you will not have the protection of the ADA law, only state law and as I mentioned, that varies by state. If you choose this route, you can do the training which usually takes between 1 and 2 years, then you and your dog, as a team take the PAT from someone or an organization trained to administer the test. Keep in mind that there are no organizations that are “certified” to administer the PAT regardless of what they might say or what you might hear. Once your dog is able to pass a PAT and assist you with your disability is when you can start calling your dog a Full-Service Dog and have the ADA protection.

I hope that you have found beneficial information in what I have written. As I said, I am very new to this and am learning every day. I have days where Kaeley and I make great strides and others where we seem to stand still. That is natural and things like training are cyclical. I was told by someone that in dog training, “slow is fast”…and I can see that is true. The younger your dog is the shorter their attention span will be, just as it is with a child. It is better to do a few 5-minute sessions per day sometimes that try to do an hour of training all at once, especially if you are training a puppy. I know from the classes I take Kaeley to, that by the end of that hour, she is tired and wants to either play or rest.

Always be attentive to your dog and give your dog everything you can from proper nutrition and veterinary care to proper socialization and exposure to other people of all ages, genders, and types as well as other safe dogs. If you do these things, you will be rewarded beyond your imagination. Just remember everything takes time.

My best wishes to all of you and good luck with whatever choice you choose.

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