Welcome back to our four-part series, where we discuss the basics of service dog training. Today, we’re going to cover puppy raising and socialization, which is arguably the most important aspect of preparing a dog for service work.
PUPPY RAISING PROCESS
Most puppies leave the service dog training centers where they are bred at between 7 and 8 weeks of age. Leader Dogs for the Blind, which Tevra partners with, typically has puppy raising families pick up their puppies at closer to the 7-week mark. These volunteer families, who have been carefully screened by service dog programs, start the process of teaching basic manners, obedience, and socializing their new charges.
Almost anyone who really wants to get involved can become a puppy raiser. A lot of dog experience is not a requirement. Puppy raisers can be families with children, single people with careers, or older couples. Some service dog programs even coordinate with local 4H clubs, so the primary raiser may be a high school student. All that is needed is a willingness to commit to training a puppy for a year and to follow the guidelines set by the service dog program.
Generally, puppies start by learning how to relieve on-leash, which they will need to do with their partner if they are matched with a partner as an adult. They also start crate-training and learning other basic house manners. Some basic products the puppy raisers will need to purchase might be puppy pads, tough chew toys, flea and tick protection, and heartworm medication. Tevrapet Activate II is the official flea and tick solution of Leader Dogs for the Blind and all puppy raisers are given free product donated by Tevra Brands for their puppy.
Puppies and their puppy raiser also start attending basic training classes to learn early obedience and gain exposure to new people, other dogs, and unusual surfaces. Some service dog organizations assign puppy counselors and publish puppy training procedures and guidelines that help provide direction to the puppy raisers. Many puppy raisers get permission from their place of employment to bring a puppy to work with them. Going to a work environment daily is highly encouraged as part of the socialization process of raising a puppy to be a service dog.
Most puppy raisers take their puppies almost everywhere they need to go. If the puppy they are raising becomes a fully trained service dog, he will go everywhere with his partner, so teaching puppies to remain calm in all kinds of unusual situations is a critical part of the process.
Teaching a service dog puppy good house manner is also a critical part of the puppy raising process. It generally isn’t possible to work on this during advanced training, so puppies need to be fairly calm in the home before they return to the training center. Puppies also learn from an early age how to accept praise and love from humans, which is important for all dogs to understand.
PUPPY RAISER SUPPORT
Puppy raisers receive a lot of guidance from the agency they volunteer with throughout the life of the puppy. Staff working with puppy raisers want to evaluate a puppy’s ability to continue in the program generally on a monthly basis. They also are a great source of advice and support for the puppy raisers they work with.
Many puppy raisers enjoy learning about how puppies learn and grow. They find the process of preparing a puppy for a life of service to a human partner with a disability very rewarding. If their puppy makes it all the way through training, the raiser often can meet their puppy’s new partner and watch the now fully trained service dog work with their human.
Puppies usually leave the puppy raiser home to start their advanced service dog training at between 14 and 16 months of age. The puppy raisers get regular updates on their puppy’s progress throughout what is generally a 3-6-month process. We’ll spend some time learning what happens to these very special puppies in advanced training in the next part of this series. We’ll also talk a little bit about what happens when a puppy can’t complete the training program for either health or behavioral reasons. As always, feel free to ask us any questions in the comments.