Service and assistance dogs aren't always living the good life, expert claims

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Jennifer Arnold founded a service dog school called Canine Assistants in 1995.

"Assistance dogs change lives, save lives, help people to live more independently and therefore productively; there's no question about it," she begins. "But there's a huge problem in the industry. Too often we're not very nice to the dogs being trained."

Arnold hesitates, then continues, as her eyes get teary.

"I'll just come out and say it -- and expect to be attacked for saying it -- but these dogs are slave labor. I don't know how else to put it. And it is the truth that no one talks about."

Many non-profit organizations that train service or assistance dogs depend on volunteers to raise the puppies, housetraining and socializing them. Then when the pups are about 18 weeks old, they're returned to the schools.

"No one explains to the dogs what happened to the only family they've known," says Arnold. "These (puppy-raising) volunteers are wonderful, but is this (system) fair to the dogs?"

Arnold is also concerned that many schools use punitive training methods. Indeed, many other dog-training experts concur that positive reinforcement isn't only the most humane method to train dogs, but it's also most effective in the long run.

While it seems that experts are in absolute agreement that positive training is the only way to go, Arnold says she has no idea why some schools cling to harsh techniques.

"Perhaps, it's just because it's the way they've always done it, or maybe they believe it's faster," she says.

Most of the non-profits that train service and assistance dogs merely consider the animals pieces of equipment, Arnold contends. The dogs are kept in good physical health because veterinary care costs money, but Arnold wonders about the animals' mental health.

Dog-training schools teach their animals dozens of different commands, readying each to be paired with a person. Service and assistance dogs are trained for all sorts of jobs, from assisting a returning U.S. veteran with post traumatic stress disorder syndrome to helping a child or adult with a physical disability.

Arnold is also concerned that even after dogs are placed with their handlers and their families, life is not always rosy.

"Of course, the dogs are well cared for (and) they're loved by their families," says Arnold. "But their lives are too often so mechanized they have little freedom." Arnold contends many service or assistance dogs aren't truly happy, and if they could, they'd hail a cab out of town. The dogs may, for example, have limited play time and little contact with other dogs. Some dogs never bond well with their owners, Arnold claims.

Canine Assistants, located near Atlanta, GA, pairs dogs with people with mobility difficulties; diabetics, whose dogs alert them when their blood sugar levels spike or crash; and people with epilepsy who need dogs trained in seizure response.

"It's all about the bond," says Arnold. For example, Arnold's school trains dogs to keep people safe when they have a seizure, such as preventing someone from falling. No one, at least yet, knows how to train dogs to predict seizures, yet about 90 percent of Canine Assistants dogs quickly learn to do this, she says.

"It happens because the dogs can do it, and I believe also, because of the bond, they want to do it."

Arnold continues, "In so many ways, we've overplayed our hand with dogs, I believe we've taken away some of their decision-making ability. We've begun to increasingly teach our dogs (at Canine Assistants) using modeling behavior, so the dog learns to mimic what a trainer suggests. There's never any force involved."

Dogs trained by Canine Assistants learn some commands, but also have the freedom to make some decisions on their own. They do learn to perform physical tasks like retrieving and picking up objects.

"I originally thought the physical tasks would be the primary value," says Arnold. "I was wrong. It's that the dog doesn't see their person (as handicapped) but absolute perfection. When you (the handler) spend all your time looking into eyes reflecting adoration back toward you, it changes how you think about yourself. I think what the dogs are able to do for people emotionally is even a better benefit than what they do physically. But the dogs we graduate also deserve to be happy and have wonderful lives - and if they're happy the bond will be stronger."

(Steve Dale welcomes questions/comments from readers. Although he can't answer all of them individually, he'll answer those of general interest in his column Send e-mail to PETWORLD(at)STEVE DALE.TV. Include your name, city and state. Steve's website is http://www.stevedalepetworld.com; he also hosts the nationally syndicated "Steve Dale's Pet World" and "The Pet Minute." He's also a contributing editor to USA Weekend.)

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