It’s been a very rough time for me lately, on a lot of fronts. However, I’m focusing this post on The Barnum Situation, which is that I’m considering washing him out. This has involved a lot of thought, crying, evaluation, crying, strategizing, crying, asking opinions from other experienced trainers I respect, and more crying.
For those who don’t know what this means, or who have strong feelings about this, I’ve decided to do a series on the issue of washouts. This post lays the groundwork of what it means when a dog is washed out, and how that tends to come about. I’ll write further posts on why I’m considering this with Barnum.
“Wash out” is the term used in the assistance dog world for a dog being trained — or already working — as a guide, hearing, or service dog, who is deemed unsuitable to continue training or working.
What I’m going through, as the owner-trainer of a service-dog-in-training (SDiT) is not unique. In fact, I’d say it’s probably more common than not. However, most people I know who have faced this issue have not spoken about it publicly, in part because the general public (those not partnered with assistance dogs) don’t tend to understand the complexity and difficulty of the situation. This often leads to judgemental comments that make an already painful situation even worse. But, I’m putting my trust in you, readers, to hear me out.
I am also going to provide background and explanation, so that those of you who are not in the assistance-dog world will understand why the situation I’m facing is so huge and potentially heartbreaking, even if I end up keeping Barnum as a pet or part-time SD.
What Goes Into a Service Dog?
Here’s the deal: I got Barnum to be my service dog (SD). Everything I did, starting with work I put in years before he was born, was with the plan of my successor SD to Gadget. (It actually goes back farther than that, to the late 90s, when I was researching acquiring a SD and what breed would most suit me, etc.)
What do I mean by “everything”? The breeder I chose, the puppy the breeder and I picked based on her observations and testing, the socialization efforts I put in when Barnum was a puppy, all the training I’ve done with him. All of this time, money, physical, emotional, and mental energy has been spent to create a willing, eager, competent, full-time SD.
A full-time SD is one who is available when I ask for assistance — to shut or open a door, to turn a light on or off, to help me get to the bathroom or pull of my sweatshirt. He is also “on call” for alerts — when my infusion pump alarm goes off and I’m asleep, or the phone rings when I’m in the bathroom — and it’s his job to leap into action and alert me to the pump or bring me the phone. He also has to be able to go with me in public, anywhere (except an operating room or some similar place), and carry things in a pack, bring me things I drop or point out, open doors, and at all times pay close attention to me, behave with control and decorum, and follow all cues to keep out of others’ way and to be calm and reliable.
This is a tall order. I knew that going in. I knew it with Jersey and Gadget, although I was willing to take the risk with Jersey that she would just be a pet. With Gadget, I chose him as a SDiT. A puppy is even more of a crapshoot than a young adult, like Gadget, because you don’t know how they’ll turn out. I knew there were many reasons the dog I chose could wash out.
What Causes a Washout?
Health problems account for a lot of washouts — especially structural issues, with hip dysplasia being probably the most common. Vision problems, hearing problems, or medical conditions that can’t be controlled can trigger a washout.
Behavioral issues are equally frequent as the culprits. Dogs who show aggression to people, other dogs, or household animals (such as cats), or who are timid or anxious at new sights, sounds, smells, or locations will likely not work out as SDs.
A physically and temperamentally sound dog is usually considered the most basic requirement for a SD to successfully graduate and have a long career as a working dog. However, there are other considerations that are more subtle.
For a guide dog, a high prey drive can be a problem. Since most (but not all!) guide dogs work in urban environments, a predilection for chasing squirrels (or any other fast-moving, erratic object, such as cyclists or skate-boarders) could put the handler at risk if the dog is too distracted to pay attention to his job.
Barking is desirable for certain assistance dogs, but considered unacceptable for others. For example, many guide and service dog schools train their dogs not to bark. However, my first SD, Jersey, never barked, and this prevented her from doing some of the useful tasks that Gadget later took on. These included running to my landlord’s house and barking to alert him that he had a note from me, or sounding the alarm when a bear climbed onto my porch or a person walked into my house. Gadget was also slightly hard-of-hearing, which was not a problem for me, but would be if he was a hearing dog.
I’ve heard of guide dogs being washed out for pulling too hard in harness or not pulling hard enough, for walking too fast. There are also a lot of individual preferences — an exuberant dog versus a quiet one, a dog who is “on” all the time versus one who prefers a good amount of power-napping.
Owner-Trainers Versus SD Programs
Whether a dog is washed out depends a lot on who is training her, too. There are obvious differences between owner-trainers and program trainers.
A program has many more dogs to choose among, and has limited resources to allocate to a certain number of graduates. Therefore, they cull the dogs who don’t fit the most neatly into the program, even if there is a dog who — with extra time and trouble, or if that certain special human partner came along — would otherwise work out well. A program trainer is also not living, sleeping, eating, and spending all their own money, time, and love on one dog. They are working several dogs as part of a job, dogs whom they know will end up with someone else. They are not relying on the dogs they train for their increased mobility, safety, freedom, independence, or quality of life.
The owner-trainer, on the other hand, has much more invested in a single dog — hopes and dreams, but also an enormous amount of time, money, and energy. This makes us much more motivated to “make it work” with the dog we’re training, which has both positive and negative aspects. The negative is that we may keep training or working a dog who is really not happy as a SD or who is not serving us as well as we need. The positive is that we have the time and motivation to work through behavioral issues that programs would not consider resource-worthy.
In fact, I am positive that neither Jersey nor Gadget would have been graduated by a SD school. Jersey needed confidence-building, and soon after she was working full-time, she lost an eye to glaucoma. Gadget had gastrointestinal issues, allergies, and put his herding drive to work in his first few months by nipping my landlord and one of my friends! However, I was able to work through the behavioral issues and keep the medical problems controlled. If Jersey had been a guide dog, losing half her vision would have been a deal-breaker. On the other hand, Ed Eames, the former President and one of the founders of International Association of Assistance Dog Partners (IAADP), continued to work with his guide, Kirby, even after Kirby lost a leg to osteosarcoma. For a mobility assistance dog, being three-limbed would have been a bigger problem.
The next post in this series will be Barnum’s Balance Sheet, and the steps I’m taking to try to save our partnership.
As always, I welcome comments and questions. However, I prefer you hold your questions about Barnum’s situation, specifically, until I have a chance to write that post.
-Sharon, the muse of Gadget, and Barnum (SDiT?)