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Monday, December 27, 2010

ASK THE DOG TRAINER, with Terry Lynn Cuyler: Selecting a Train-it-Yourself Assistance Dog

by Terry Lynn Cuyler, APDT, CPDT-KA

© International Association of Assistance Dog Partners™
 Dear Terry:

I was on a waiting list for 5 years, and with so many problems I have to train my own assistance dog. I need a mobilty dog for the biggest part because I have a depth perception problem because of medications , and with lupus, fibromyalgia, hypoglycemia, seizures, and Rheumatoid Arthritis, there is so much to train for.

I haven't started yet. I probably won't get a dog until I find the right one. Hubby is gonna have to help me train, because I don't have much energy. There are many shelter dogs, especially large breeds here in Northern Europe. What do I look for?  A puppy is best, I know, but I have seen dogs from 6 weeks to 14 years at the shelters. I have looked into Antesion dogs, and different mountian dogs (Bernese, Swiss, Danish), and mixed breeds too. For me, it's the one that touches my heart.

What is one of the first things I should look for? Temperament, or willingness to serve or getting a 6 week old and hope for the best?

Thanks, Niki

Dear Niki,
You are so right that the best one is the one that clicks with you. I look for temperament and that includes a willingness to serve, or you may be referring to a keep-working ethic, but there has to be a connection between you and the dog. 

You can help build that bond by using positive reinforcement to teach skills you need. Even in traditional training organizations where they train the dogs first, and then bring in the potential human partners, they find certain dogs bond with certain people. You need a dog who is physically capable of doing the work you require, so it does need to be substantial in size, and then you need a list of the things you absolutely must have it do--prop you up if you start to fall, retrieve something you dropped, guide you to the edge of the curb, etc. 

 Karen Pryor, who helped solidify clicker training, as the most efficient way to train a dog for a specific behavior, offers a 4 DVD How-to set. to help owner trainers such as yourself. You can find additional assistance on skills at at the International Association for Assistance Dog Partners.

For you, I don’t recommend a puppy because puppies are difficult enough for anyone without the illnesses you mentioned. And you CAN absolutely train a mature dog, though they don’t soak it up quite as fast. You do want a self-confident dog, not a fearful one. As for some of the specific skills, equipment and trainers see the Delta Society's webpage.
I hope this has helped you in your search, and that you will keep us advised of your progress. Best of luck!

Terry, The Paws Prof

© courtesy T.L.Cuyler
Our ASK THE DOG TRAINER Column can be reached at

For more information on Terry Lynn Cuyler and her training, you may find her at Paws Prof

A personal appointment with a trainer will likely provide more specific information on your dog's issues and your questions.

The PawsProf's advice does not replace an actual consultation with a qualified trainer.

Related Reading:
Ask the Dog Trainer, with Terry Lynn Cuyler: Clicker Training Pros and Cons
Don't miss the Clicker Success Stories video coming 12/18/10
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