What’s It Like to be a Service Dog?

black retriever guide dog standing on grass

Many times when people think about the job of a service dog, their focus is, understandably, on the needs of the person with disability.  What many folks don’t consider, initially, is what it’s like for a dog to be a pubic access service dog.  As that experience, in our modern day and age, is a primary reason why so few dogs (out of the sheer number of dogs that exist) are successful in a career as a service or guide dog (guide dog for the blind programs which have been selectively breeding for successful guide dog traits for nearly 90 years have a 50-60% success rate.  Service dog programs which have been around not as long have a 30-50% success rate).  (Reminder note: no, at Maplewood Dog we do not train service dogs.)

I thought to close out this International Assistance Dog Week 2019  a brief ‘Day in the Life’ of my guide dog, Tom, would be fun, and possibly enlightening.  Tom is nearly 10yrs old, and has been my guide dog since he was 19 months old.  He was bred, raised, trained and matched to me by the Guide Dog Foundation in NY.  Now, the Foundation does a fantastic job matching their dogs to their clients, so my life and needs in a guide dog are likely different from someone who lives in a more rural, or more urban environment, or who isn’t, you know, a dog training professional where my dogs are having to cope with lots of dogs going in and out of their lives.  Not all service or guide dogs lead the exact life Tom does, but they all experience some level of similar stressors that is the nature of public access work with a disabled handler.  Tom not only handles these various stressors, but thrives with them.  A testament to his breeding, his temperament and his being matched to a handler, and lifestyle, that well suits him.

A (Brief) Day in the Life of Tom:

6am: out to toilet, then breakfast, and back to bed for more snoozing while breakfast digests, and the humans get ready for the day.

8-10am: out on a walk for exercise.  Today we are headed to some local conservation lands with a friend and her new puppy.  Often our morning walks are in the park with our friends, their dogs, and of course Zora, though sometimes Tom, Zora and I simply walk around town.  He stays on focus, guiding me safely on woods paths, in the park, or around town, where ever our morning walk for the day takes us.  He ignores the countless barking and lunging dogs, squirrels, people and bikes that cross our path, and ensures I don’t trip, helps me stay oriented, and is my back up safety net at street crossings.  Today Tom shows me logs we have to climb over, roots to avoid, puppy feet to not step on, and then at the creek I take his leash and harness off and he and Zora teach the puppy about the joys of water play on a warm summer morning.  We then gear up again to finish our walk and head back home.

3 dogs stand on a bench, a retriever guide dog sits next to the bench
Some of our best walking buddies!

10-11:15am: Tom hangs about the house with the other dogs while I get some work done on the computer.  Zora barks at something, he ignores her.  He occasionally wants me to pet him.

11:15am: Tom knows we’re getting ready to go out again.  He’s excited.  Nudging me, “When are we going?  When are we going?”  I get my shoes on, he grabs a toy and rolls around squeaking it on the living room rug.  I open the closet door, he’s right there ready to shove his head into his collar and harness as I hold them up.  Ready to go.

black retriever guide dog lies napping on a train11:30am: our ride picks us up to head to the train station.  We board the commuter rail to Boston, this afternoon is our weekly volunteering downtown.  He confidently guides me on board the noisy train, and finds us an empty seat.  As we get settled, a near by kid screams “Doggie!”, Tom ignores the kid, slides under my seat and goes to sleep.  The gentleman next to me starts talking to Tom, “Oh what a handsome boy!  What’s his name?  Hi!  You’re so handsome!” my dog ignores him and continues his nap under my seat, the man wonders, “Your dog is ignoring me?”  “Yes, he’s working.”

12:30-1pm: we disembark and head into South Station.  “Tommy, find inside”, he expertly navigates us through the summer tourist crowds to the station and inside, then we make our way around to the exit doors onto the streets of Boston.  As we move through the station, Tom stops abruptly.  There is another dog freaking out close by.  If Tom stops, or avoids, I have learned, he feels a dog is a threat.  I ask, “Is it contained?!”  I get an affirmative, “Tom, good boy, froward.”  He believes me, and we are off again moving through the station.

We walk the half mile or so route to our destination.  Along the way, Tom finds curbs and walk signal buttons at my request.  He navigates around endless people, strollers, bikes, a number of dogs, and, of course, pigeons.  He shows me a construction barrier, “Tom, find the way”, he looks around to find the best route, and takes me around the construction back to our path of travel.  At a crossing, we have the light, parallel traffic surges, I say, “Tom, forward.”  He doesn’t move.  I take his cue and stand still, a car, that I didn’t hear before, turns in front of us.  “Good boy!!  Thanks, buddy!”  Intelligent disobedience training for the win.  Glad I’m not road pizza today.

Video clip of a part of one of our frequent city routes:

1-6pm: We’ve arrived and time to begin our afternoon of public education.  For the rest of the afternoon, we navigate through the packed facility.  Tom finds our way through the thrall of visitors to our various stations, then snoozes while I teach, or give presentations, until it’s time for us to move again to our next station. Occasionally I’m asked by a visitor, shocked he’s so relaxed and comfortable, amidst such chaos, “Is that a real dog?!”  We deflect, and redirect, endless inquiries to pet him, “No, he’s working, but thank you for asking.”  I give him lots of praise, pets and the occasional snack for being such a good dog.  His love for the job makes my life so much easier.

Part way through our shift, we’re scheduled a short break; we head back upstairs to the kitchen where I feed Tom his dinner, since tonight it will be a late night getting home.  Then we head down the hall to the office, where other staff and volunteers not currently on the floor are.  I take Tom’s harness off and he happily makes the rounds, getting pets from my co-workers and co-volunteers.  Word travels fast, and others come for a Tom pet.   After a few minutes, he leaves his admirers and comes over to me, unprompted.  I ask him, as I hold up his harness, “Ready to get back to work?” he shoves his head in, break is over, and we head back onto the floor to teach the public.

6-7:30pm: We retrace our steps back to South Station, navigate through the station, back onto the train for our ride home.  Tom once again under my feet, on the now crowded rush hour train.  Every so often he nudges my hands, wanting some petting and attention, I gladly give it to him, he’s such a good boy.  The train arrives at our station, I stand up, “Tommy, up”, I pick up his harness handle, “Tom, forward, find outside” and off the train to the platform we go.

7:30pm: after my husband picks us up at the station, we are home.  Another day as a guide dog complete.

The work guide dogs, like Tom, and assistance dogs across the globe do is incredibly important.  My life is made safer, more efficient, and more enjoyable because of Tom, his skills, and his enjoyment for the tasks at hand.  While very few dogs are cut out to thrive in the work as a public access service dog, those who do are appreciated, and loved, beyond measure.

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