I have service dogs on the brain. Not literally, of course, but as I have children with physical needs who may benefit in the future from specially selected and trained service dogs… I often find myself thinking about them. It’s a bit like when you are thinking of buying a car and see the kind you’re thinking of absolutely everywhere… or you’re pregnant and all you seem to run into are newborns. I see service dogs everywhere.
I have recently been reading Dogs – A New Understanding of Canine Origin, Behavior, and Evolution (written by Raymond and Lorna Coppinger), more specifically the chapter entitled “Assistance Dogs” . The book is an all encompassing look at working dogs, giving some very interesting and global views of dogs in the world as they have evolved over time. In true Coppinger fashion, the chapter on service dogs comes from a very practical point of view: considering the welfare of the dogs involved in terms of their health, training methods and ongoing usage has a central focus. Considering that any attempts to cast a pall on an industry that is considered highly heroic in nature are automatically met with defensiveness, I am truly glad that the Coppinger duo included it in their book. Ray Coppinger outlined many of the questions I have been struggling with for some time about the use of assistance dogs. Specifically:
Is assistance dog work mutually beneficial?
Can service dogs appropriately help children?
Should assistance dog programs be breeding or using rescued dogs?
Are there physical or ethical limitations to what a service dog should be used for?
Considering how much time, work and money go into raising and training service dogs, how their use and applications are expanding, and how long the wait lists are for most SD (service dog) organizations…. the pressure is on for any dogs in these programs. Coppinger states: “All the agencies I have consulted with wish they had more dogs. Their common complaint is the lack of dogs suitable for training.”. Further, he comments: “If supply could meet demand, it could well be that in the twenty-first century the service dogs will constitute the major types of working dogs….. Mainly, service dogs are mass-produced in assembly-line fashion, by agencies. Over half the dogs that enter the system fail. The failure rate is due in part to abnormally high levels of “genetic” disease, to the inability of many dogs to respond properly to classical or instrumental conditioning, and to high stress levels created by rearing and training programs.”
Nothing I can distill here can replace the breadth of the chapter, which is well worth the read for anyone exploring this topic. I can, however, share a few of the main points:
– The major mobility SD organizations breed and raise their own dogs. Breeding dogs do just that and their pups are sterilized before being matched for working. Genetic issues are showing up more and more over time so some organizations don’t start their training program until they can safely rule out that the dog is affected. With structural problems (ie. hip dysplasia), this can mean delaying training for 18 months.
– Scenting, hearing and therapy dogs are often gleaned through rescue.
– SAR (search and rescue), police dogs and bomb detection dogs are usually bought from breeders.
– Regardless of origin, at least 50% fail to become full fledged working dogs. This figure encompasses both health and behavioral issues. Coppinger theorizes that one of the main reasons for failure due to behavior problems is due to the use of aversive-conditioning techniques. In Karen Pryor’s book, Reaching the Animal Mind, Pryor claims that through the use of food training, certain organizations have been able to raise their success rate from 35% to 45-65% and with the addition of clicker training (reward based marker training), as high as 85%. This would certainly seem to bear out Coppinger’s theory.
– When dogs are raised for SD work, they are often raised in a piecemeal fashion (kennel as pups to foster home to kennel with trainer) with little to no regard for appropriate socialization. “There does not seem to be much institutional realization that in every other field of working dogs, the good ones are carefully developed from tiny puppies. … I have asked the personnel at several agencies if they had read the classic Scott and Fuller work on critical period for social development. One geneticist had “heard of it.” That would be like me saying, “Oh, yes, I have heard of Darwin.” End of conversation.” – Coppinger
– There is no intrinsic motivation for a dog to excel at service work. Since there is no evidence supporting the idea that dogs doing the work are aware of what they are accomplishing, what is the reward for doing SD work? It must be external. As Coppinger rightly points out, sled dogs “run to near-exhaustion because it is socially rewarding to run and be with other running dogs.” So what is the reward for SD work?
Based on what I’ve shared, you might conclude that Coppinger is not a fan of using dogs for assistance work. That would be an conclusion I don’t want to leave you with, as it would be leading you in the wrong direction. In fact, he argues that this is one of the most exciting fields for enhancing dog-human relationship – but that we need to make a concerted effort to redesign the system as it currently stands. I have to say that I fully agree with him. There are some amazing organizations such as Canine Assistants, focused on the global benefit of their dogs from before they are born and equally dedicated to the use of positive and reward based methods of training. In order to prevent enslavement of dogs in this industry, we all must care about how SDs are trained and cared for. I truly hope that we can follow Coppinger’s lead and ask for widespread reform that strives towards true mutuality – I know that’s the only way that I can feel comfortable with my children living with assistance dogs.