Why I chose not to get an official assistance dog (and the differences)

I haven’t posted for a while and alot has happened. JJ has turned 2 years old and my special girl Inca has not been well and suffering the effects of old age. She has cataracts and her back end is wasting. I am hoping to have one last xmas with her as we are only a few weeks off now.  However this is not the reason for my post.

There was been several posts in the media about Liz Jones a reporter for the Daily Mail who is deaf and claims to have FOUR Hearing Dogs!  Whilst there’s nothing wrong with training your own pets to help you around the house, what is wrong is that she takes them in public places where pets are usually not allowed, claims they are ‘hearing dogs’ and admits that they don’t always behave in public!  She also deliberately misleads readers by posting a stock photo of a spaniel in an old Hearing Dog jacket whilst talking about her dogs. I hadn’t heard of her before reading this article so thought it was was one of her dogs and wondered HOW she managed to get hold of an Official jacket which are only given with a dog trained by Hearing Dogs for Deaf People?

I’d like to state that I have NEVER once taken either of my dogs into any area where pet dogs are not usually allowed and claimed they are my assistance dogs.  Not even when I lived nearer to town and could walk to the shopping centre with Inca who was then a young dog. At the time of getting Inca I had been waiting a few years for an Hearing Dog, I lived on my own in a flat and my dad was worried as it wasn’t a good area. He felt I could do with a dog for protection and he felt flashing house lights to let me know someone was at door or phone ringing was a bad idea. So I went to a local rescue and got Inca. My dad helped me train her where two people were needed (for him to send her back to me when she naturally ran to door or smoke alarm). This was 13 yrs ago, there was little literature about how to train a hearing dog. you occasionally saw them on TV but I didn’t have the internet then. We learned as we went along. She did what I needed her to do, if I went shopping I went by myself.

Fast forward 10 years..Inca is now 11 and half and starting with arthritis. I needed to make a decision. I had by also been a wheelchair user for nearly 7 years and had also managed to teach her to pick things up for me, empty washing and dryer and help me pull my clothes off. However I’d now need a dog to learn everything at once! I looked into and sent applications for a Dual Skilled Assistance Dog trained jointly by Canine Partners and Hearing Dogs for the Deaf. However the more I read about the process, the more I was unsure it was right for me.

If I got lucky and didn’t have to wait long I’d have to go to training centre and come back with a dog..how would Inca cope with that? Not only is it a new dog, its taking over all her jobs. If it took a long time, Inca may have passed away and I’d have a period with no help at all. The rules seemed many, but the most important fact is the dogs are extremely well behaved and virtually bomb proof in public, so they undergo years of public training from being very young puppies they are allowed in places where most pet dogs are not so they can gain that experience. If you choose to get your pet dog qualified yourself by a charity such as Dog Aid they have to be over 2 years old to take the Public Training exam so already you are working to a disadvantage regarding working in public.

I am not a professional dog trainer but have managed to train a Border Collie (bred to work sheep) to help me around the house. He does a great job, we have a strong bond, he loves to help and having his little ‘job’ to do, he even does things himself that I haven’t specifically taught him. He’s nudged my foot several times whilst on farm track when a car was behind us waiting to pass I never taught him that, only to ‘tell’ me when he heard a sound I needed to know about ie minicom, doorbell, smoke alarm. He’s a smart dog..Border Collies are often voted the Top 10 most Intelligent dogs so it came as no surprise that he figured out himself that a car behind us was something I needed to know about!

He’s also taken it upon himself to walk next to Inca when she goes for a wee at night. She’s going blind so her night vision isn’t good, rather than him just going off to do his own thing he walks round the path with her, waits until she goes to the loo then walks her back to the door! .. then he goes and has a wee himself and sniff about before coming in to bed whilst I help Inca to bed. I haven’t specifically trained this either!  Despite his intelligence, he is strongly driven by his instinct to herd when we are out walking even though we’re in a village where traffic although busy at peak times gets nowhere near as bad as town.

I have medical problems that make travelling difficult and exhausting and combined with distance from nearest town and cost via wheelchair taxi rarely get into town. I also need help getting shopping anyway and find busy areas disorientating with the bright shop lights and people bustling past especially as I’m sat in chair so my head is at most people’s waist height. To me it seemed a waste if a dog highly trained in social skills and to cope with working in public only got to do that a couple of times a year, surely that dog would be better off given to someone who could work but needed a dog, who didn’t have time to take off to train a puppy from 8 weeks old and most importantly needed a dog that could cope with a busy public transport and a workplace daily.

My home is ideal for a dog that needs a quieter life who could thrive with a bit extra personal attention, playtime, a few little jobs to do without the pressure.  One of the breeds I’d always wanted to own in my lifetime was a Border Collie. A Traditional black & white one, it was my probably my last chance to manage a puppy from a very young age and I felt a puppy would be a gentler transition for Inca, she’d still be working while he was very young and their roles would change very gradually as he grew up and she grew old. It was the right decision for me.

However some people don’t have the time or skills to train a dog, they want or need someone else to do that part for them. They need a dog that is reliable in public places and this is the major difference between an official dog trained by the charities and someone’s pet. Yes my dog does the work of a Dual Skilled Dog in MY home, he also acts as Inca’s guide dog! He’s very versatile, but he’s not experienced working in public because he’s never had that opportunity. I know he’d find it too overstimulating at his current age, whether he’d calm down further by the time Dog Aid were taking on new people I don’t know.

I still think if JJ had a choice and I was able to travel/employ an helper to drive us somewhere he’d much prefer to go to the nearest sheepdog centre and have a go at herding,  than go learn to walk through a busy shopping centre full of people, unexpected noises and bright lights, I don’t think he’d understand the connection (that it was part of the same ‘job’)  between him enjoying emptying the washing for me at home and having to walk through a busy noisy place.

However, Qualified assistance dogs are trained to cope with that from a very young age and this is the big difference between a proper ‘Assistance Dog’ and Liz Jones’ pet collies that she claims are her ‘hearing dogs’!  I would question the fact she trained her dogs ‘to create a commotion if my fire alarm goes off’. If the dogs are barking cos she can’t hear the smoke alarm as she’s deaf then how can she hear them barking???  What if its at night and she’s in bed without hearing aids? How does the dogs barking and causing a commotion help a deaf person know whether there’s a smoke alarm going off or a burglar breaking in if they’re fast asleep and can’t hear the ‘commotion’???

Both my dogs automatically barked and ran about when young when the fire alarm first went off, JJ even howls he hates the noise!  .. I didn’t train him to howl when the smoke alarm went off! I trained them to stop and think.. ‘mum needs to know about this!’ … they come and find me (its no use them just barking/howling in the kitchen if I’m in bed asleep and don’t have my hearing aids in) JJ understands I need to see him bark so he comes and actually get my attention by touching me that is a trained behaviour! Although he still doesn’t like the pitch of the alarm and still barks he does do the actual ‘tell’ and he does the ‘down’ so I know its not just someone at the door late at night/trying to break in etc.. he gives a distinct sign its the smoke alarm.  Dogs will naturally bark and cause a commotion if someone tries to break in too, how is that training?… a dog coming to physically prod you to tell you is not something they would do naturally as most hearing owners would just just run into the room they heard the barking from to see why they were barking! ..Even then a smart pet may jump  up on a bed even if hearing owners don’t respond to him barking, many pets have saved their family from fire at night or a baby/child having a seizure at night etc that doesn’t make them assistance dogs!

The difference is a Qualified Assistance dog is specifically trained from a young age to work in public. Maybe the charities need to get a slot on morning TV or something showing how the dogs are started from a very young age and the what the ID looks like that people carry so shop owners and other public service providers can recognise an official dog when they see one!