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How I Trained My Own Service Dog

Meet Lexie, my 7-ish year old sheltie/border collie mix and trained service dog. We rescued Lexie about five years ago from the Gulf Coast Sheltie Rescue in Pensacola. She had been found five months prior running on the interstate with a child’s leash attached to her, had heartworms, and knew absolutely no manners or obedience. Though we did not want a puppy, we basically got one in adult form. She barely even knew her name.

Originally, I wanted to get Lexie into competitive dog agility. It turned out that Lexie was pretty good at agility, but she didn’t love it. She was definitely only in it for the treats! Also, her joints are not the best, and we were afraid to really push and cause permanent damage to her back and shoulders.

Being part border collie, Lexie needs a constant job. She is extremely smart and extremely busy… and bossy. We decided that maybe she could be useful as a “help dog,” or service dog for me. She is big enough to pick things up off the ground and hand them to me, push elevator buttons, etc. After getting her through basic obedience and teaching her a few silly pet tricks just for fun, I called Ann Becnel, and we started training.

Most dogs don’t naturally pick up objects that are useful to humans – pens, pencils, keys, phones, wallets, etc. – and hand them back to said human. Think about it; when your dog grabs your shoe or sock, they go running off with it and expect a chase, right? Yeah, Lexie was exactly the same way when we started. Actually, chase with her toys is still her favorite game, but now she knows the difference between play time and work time.

Our first lesson in service dog training was a simple one: Lexie got a reward for simply touching the object with her nose that we wanted her to eventually pick up. In this case, we found a small, felt bag that was not only easy for her to grab, but we could stuff it with treats to make the nose-touching come more quickly. By the end of the lesson, Lexie only got a treat if she opened her mouth to the bag and at least attempted to grab it.

Slowly but surely, we went from nosing the bag, to licking/biting the bag, to holding the bag for longer and longer periods of time, to going to get the bag from far away, to getting the bag from far away and putting it in our hands. Granted, I wasn’t able to teach all of this by myself, but Ann or Mom would teach the basic behavior, and then we’d translate it to me.

When Lexie was confident getting the bag and handing it to me on a low bench when I was at her level, we started challenging her more. She then had to hand me the bag when I was in my wheelchair, on a higher table, in my bed, etc. We then translated the “get it” command to other objects, easy ones first then harder ones. Pens, pencils, paintbrushes, cloth, or anything wooden or soft are fairly easy for dogs to pick up and don’t taste bad to them. Bigger things, like the cell phone, remote controls, keys etc., are a bit harder and take more time for them to understand. Luckily, Lexie is a total food hound and super smart, so we didn’t have a whole lot of trouble getting her to brain to click in. She does practically anything for food!

Once Lexie was picking up several things successfully at home in various situations, we started taking her out in public to help me out. It’s also essential that all service dogs know how to behave in public and are trained to focus solely on their owners while in public spaces. Of course we had to work on how Lexie walked on a leash attached to my wheelchair, not greeting every person she saw, not barking in public, etc. Lex has pretty good common sense though, so none of these behaviors were hard to train. With her service dog vest on, Lexie is now allowed virtually anywhere with me. We’ve taken her to the mall, Michael’s, different shops, restaurants, bars, meetings, etc., and had her practice picking things up everywhere we went. We’ve even had her take my credit card from a cashier and hand it to me.

Within a few months, Lexie had the “get it” command down pat in any situation. Again, Lexie is very smart and has a mind of her own and a smart ass attitude, so if someone like my mom or my aide asks her to get something for them, she often times looks at them and says, “You are capable, get it yourself.” Now, she never does this with me, I think because she knows I actually can’t get said object (and she’s supposed to be my service dog), and she will sometimes get me things without me having a treat in hand. Of course, Lexie is ultimately in it for herself and treats play a major role in getting her to do what we want.

Teaching Lexie to be a service dog was not only useful to me, but it gave us something to bond over. Teaching a dog a trick like “get it” takes a little bit of training every day, so it makes you spend more and more time together. Lexie is also the only one of our three dogs that is a service dog, so the fact that I can put her vest on her and take her on outings by herself makes her feel special. And trust me, Lexie loves to feel special. Getting her out in public regularly and teaching her different behaviors has literally turned Lexie into a different dog. She still has a few bad habits, but when her service dog vest is on, she is a perfect angel, and I can trust her to behave in any situation. It amazes me how good she has gotten when I look back at where we started five years ago.

If you have a hyper dog that needs to learn some manners, I highly suggest getting into agility, obedience, therapy, or service dog training. It will not only give them a purpose and calm them down, but it will also give you two a stronger bond.

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