Saturday, January 30, 2010

Akita Service Dog Trainer/Handler, What does that mean?




I've entered into many new phases in life. Some began with an intentional step into unknown territory. Some I discovered without a plan. Training llamas to walk on a leash or dogs or akitas all happened because I love animals and was interested in the process. But it was my first akita Angel and my second akita Bear that taught me the value of using observation and then physical cues to communicate with those I didn't share a common language. My akitas and llamas and donkeys taught me that they were always paying attention. And this attentiveness was to become the key in my approach to training.

I am now training my third akita Coco, to be my service dog. When I started the training process for this I wasn't sure I'd be able to do it. I couldn't see my life without an akita in it but I wasn't sure how social or adaptable an akita could be. My other akitas were raised on our farm. They were wonderful and friendly but could they have been service dogs?

I was told by a trainer to socialize her from the time she was a pup. To introduce her to everyone and to dogs and cats and have neighbors come up and pet her. To see every interaction and an opportunity to help her to feel comfortable with all sorts of people and animals in all kinds of environments. Check. She has far exceeded what I ever thought she would be able to do.

Once we entered into the obedience phase I did my research and found out that there was a whole idea of training, a positive type of training that had caught on. It was very much how I trained my llamas and felt completely natural. Encourage positive behaviors. Give a name to a sit when your dog sits and reward them. Teach them to sit by bringing a treat up over their nose and walk toward them. Reward them when they come to you with praise and treats. I used lots of praise and rarely needed to use treats.

When we entered into our classwork there were other dogs and lots of distractions and we were always learning something new, so this was a tremendous challenge. Not just for Coco but also for me. Because of my brain injury, I have a real hard time with lots of noise and visual stimulation. Everything gets distorted and if I don't wear my earplugs and glasses that help with the glare, I might not be able to last the whole class without feeling so fatigued I either have to sit for awhile or go home.

How was I going to be able to train Coco to help me in public places if being in public places made me symptomatic? It is a good thing my trainer Sarah knew. And what she didn't know, she researched and figured out. This past year Coco has learned the basics. The most important elements as a handler and partner has definitely been to teach her to watch me and follow the hand signals that help to keep her focused on me when there are other dogs or distractions going on.

We are taking our AKC Good Citizen Test soon. And the training has been an amazing process. It has been two years and we are always learning something new about each other and the world around us. It is only now however, that I am learning what it means to be a handler. When we train our dogs we are establishing a common language. Whether we use hand signals, foot taps, verbal commands or sounds; what we are doing is finding ways to communicate. What I love about akitas is the way they go further and assume that they can communicate with you in the same way.

Coco now knows that if she wants out she needs to come up to me, look me in the eye and walk toward the door and then look back to see if I am coming. She has applied all on her own, that if the cats are outside and meowing to come in, that she needs to come to me, look me in the eye, get my attention and then walk to whichever door the cats are meowing behind. We have established that direct eye contact, walking in a certain direction and looking back to see if the other is coming, is a way to let each other know that something is going on. And I want you to come with me to check it out.

I have been learning how to apply all of the things we have learned so that if a dog approaches Coco in an aggressive manner she won't be ruffled. We will be so focused on each other that she won't react to it. This has happened only a couple of times when we were out in pubic. But she has done amazingly well.

I now know that it is as much the responsibility of the trainer to understand the importance of knowing how to handle your dog in a diverse set of circumstances as it is for an owner to take responsibility for your dog's health and welfare. In fact, the two are harmonious when done well.

Many years ago, it was my akitas that showed me they were interested in finding a common language. Their instincts were wild in so many ways. The way they thought and problem solved was absolutely fascinating. But I never could have imagined how all of these years would have led me to the kind of teamwork I am experiencing with Coco.

The Ray Graham Association, The Morris Service Dog Program and United Way have helped me realize the best in what an akita can do and what I can do. I have said that I imagined having an akita service dog would help me so I could go to an artfair or a park or maybe travel again. In my mind I always thought I was going to take my service dog places. But what has happened is that Coco has taken me places. We do talks for fundraising and educational events and we have a great time in social situations. And we have a great time at home. Everyday we do work and we enjoy life and everyday I am so, so grateful. I just love life's surprises. They are so my favorite thing.


  1. Thanks so much for sharing this - I also love Akitas, and am currently researching getting one for myself to train as a service dog. I've been disabled for two years, and just learned that a psychiatric service dog might help improve the quality of my life - would love to connect with you hear any additional thoughts you have :)

    1. I am researching as well before I get an Akita because I want it trained as a service Dog. I love animals. Hopefully I will have one by October. My German Shepherd is 3 months old and our Mal-ta-poo is 20 months old. I want the dogs to bond as well.

    2. I am researching as well before I get an Akita because I want it trained as a service Dog. I love animals. Hopefully I will have one by October. My German Shepherd is 3 months old and our Mal-ta-poo is 20 months old. I want the dogs to bond as well.

  2. A Therapy Dog sounds like what you are looking for. A Therapy Dog provides comfort for those suffering from things like PTSD. A Service Dog performs at least four life saving functions for its human that the person cannot do for themselves. The training is much more intensive.

    All dogs that have the privilege of being in the public domain have to pass tests that require extensive socialization and impulse control training in a class situation.

    There are organizations in just about every state so the best way to find one close to you, where you can find out what the requirements are and if you would qualify for a Therapy Dog; you would probably be able to find by doing a google search.

    1. This information is not correct. A service dog need only perform one task the handler needs assistance with. Also, other than specific service dog organization's own particular tests, there are NO tests a privately trained service dog must perform to graduate to service dog. The minimum guidelines for a service dog is the CGC requirements, but they do not need to actually be certified.

  3. Hi, I'm in the process of training my little guy, Kuma (bear) to be a service dog. He's a great learner at 14 weeks. He's great. I would never change it.
    ~Love your story.