In case we haven’t had the pleasure of meeting, I am the Rescue Coordinator at LifeLine's DeKalb County Animal Services and also have the privilege of being Otter’s foster human mom and raiser. My job, in regards to Otter, right now is to ensure that he is a happy, healthy, confident puppy. Otter comes to work with me every day and comes home with me every night. We train at home, in the office, at grocery stores, malls, doctor’s offices and anywhere else in public we get the chance. While we are regularly working on his obedience and task training, he is a puppy before all else and has every right to express normal puppy behavior. As his confidence and distraction awareness increases, we will continue to introduce different commands and tasks for him to learn until he is ready to be placed with his family as a working service dog.
But how did I learn to do all this?
Before coming to LifeLine, I spent several years as a puppy raiser for a guide dog organization in New York that places guide dogs with people that are blind or visually impaired, and also places service dogs with disabled veterans. I raised five dogs during my time with them, and three of them are currently working as service dogs in all different capacities. A lot of what I will implement with Otter are skills that I learned through working this organization. Since then, I have also proceeded to take classes in animal behavior and training, and am in the final stages of completing my CPDT-KA (certified professional dog trainer).
So how did we know Otter would make a good service dog?
One of the things about raising service dogs is that it’s always a gamble. We never KNOW that they are going to end up with the temperament and demeanor required for such a demanding job. We evaluated about a dozen dogs before selecting Otter (even though we all really had our eye on him from the beginning). I won’t get into the nitty gritty of temperament testing eight-week old puppies, but what really stood out about Otter was his relentless curiosity, constant eagerness to please his handler, laid-back overall demeanor and a strong food drive which will make training so much easier on both of our parts! We will spend the next 10-12 months raising and training together so that he may be able to serve a veteran with a disability in the future. However, dogs can be unpredictable and things can always change, so if Otter decides he doesn’t want to work or doesn’t have the drive, calling, whatever it may be… We have a back-up plan for him too. Not every dog is meant to be a service dog, just like not every person is meant to be a doctor or lawyer or business executive.
And how does Otter differ from the other dogs I’ve worked with?
This is a question I’ve been asked a lot, and I really enjoy having this conversation. All five of the dogs that came from the organization I was previously with, were bred to be service dogs. For decades, they have selectively bred labradors, golden retrievers and standard poodles within their organization to rule out undesirable behaviors and common medical ailments. Even with the years and years of research and implementation of an extensively-structured breeding program, some of those dogs still do not make it to be service dogs. And again, that’s totally okay. So when we first started this journey, we got a lot of flack about Otter not being from a service dog breeder when in actuality, he is VERY comparable to a lot of the dogs that I have worked with previously. He has Liberty’s calm demeanor, Justeen’s curiosity, Charlie’s love for treats, Travis’s eagerness to learn and Bozz’s goofy personality that can really just make anyone smile.
The one and only difference that I’ve noticed between Otter and my first five is so very minimal that I almost didn’t notice it at first. When we first started doing public outings, namely to restaurants or other places where we would be sitting for extended periods of time, Otter would take longer than the others to settle down and just be content with sitting there. It’s so important for a service dog to be able to sit calmly and quietly for extended periods of time and since my first five were bred for working dog temperaments, this was something that came very easily and quickly for them whereas we had to work on it just a little bit more with Otter.
Otter is now great at settling in quickly as this is something that we began to work on more once I realized his distraction. He will now quickly and quietly settle in right under my feet/chair while we eat and exit the table quietly when our meal is over. The best thing I can hear when we’re out eating in public is, “I didn’t even know there was a dog down there!” Otter is now four months old and if the last eight weeks together are any indication of what’s to come, we are both in for lots of adventures, laughs and learning experiences together.