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March 7, 2022

Reflections of a Service Dog Trainer

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Written by: liz kover

My job over the last year has been to train a Labrador puppy as a service dog for a child with autism. Having graduated with an A.S. in Assistance Dog Education from Bergin University of Canine Studies last spring, I was thrilled to be hired as a trainer right out of the gate by a wonderful organization called Good Dog Autism Companions. GDAC, a small non-profit based in San Diego, is run by a couple whose thirteen year old son has autism, and whose lives were transformed by a service dog named Orbit. Different in many ways than the larger assistance dog organizations like Guide Dogs for the Blind or Canine Companions for Independence, GDAC doesn’t utilize puppy raisers that are different than the dogs’ trainers. Instead, the trainers raise and train the pups from ten weeks old to approximately one year old. This means that Fred — the little guy I named after Mr. Rogers, on whose birthday Fred’s litter was born — has been with me every single day since he was a tiny, chubby little butterball. He may as well be my first born for the love he evoked the moment I laid eyes on his pink, heart-shaped nose and soulful green-gray eyes.

Anyone who handles dogs that aren’t their own — such as pet sitters or boarders, rescue dog foster families, and service dog puppy raisers — knows that there is a delicate dance involved in giving a dog 100% of your love while also maintaining a necessary amount of “emotional distance”. But because I have confidence in my ability to let him go when the time comes, I believe that loving Fred truly, deeply and madly until the last minute I have with him is perfectly acceptable. In fact, I think that if I felt differently, I wouldn’t be the person that I am, which means I wouldn’t be the trainer that I am. And if I weren’t the trainer that I am, Fred may not be the service dog he was born to be! And so it is as it should be. That being said, I can give this precious dog all my love for the time he and I have left together. And undoubtedly I will love him until the end of time and carry him with me in spirit always. But when the actual moment comes to hand him over to his future, I will have to suspend my feelings…and wait until I drive away to let the tears flow.

In order to facilitate the connection between Fred and his boy, an act of absolute detachment on my part will be key. It will have to happen literally the instant I hand over the leash. To even emote in Fred’s general direction during that beginning stage of their partnership will interfere with Fred and Ben’s crucial bonding process. So, even though I will undoubtedly feel like crumbling into a thousand pieces at that fated moment, I will simply have no other option but to keep it together.

Make no mistake, pain is not the only emotion I will feel during this time. In fact, even the pain is part of a much bigger and fuller picture; a direct reflection of the joy Fred has brought to my life; a measure of the bond that exists and will always exist between us. Furthermore, the beauty I will inevitably see — and in fact have already witnessed — in the relationship between Fred and Ben will transcend the pain, no matter how great.

Only after I’ve completed my job and hit the road will I allow my emotions to surface. I have no doubt this will hurt so much as to take my breath away in moments. But knowing what magic awaits in Fred and Ben’s now conjoined life will carry me through.

Though it is a somewhat taboo thing to share, I would be lying if I said that Fred hasn’t acted as an emotional support dog for me during the year we’ve spent together. He has given me purpose and faith when those things could have otherwise vanished without a trace. He has reminded me to LIVE when depression threatened to keep me under the covers forever. Fred has been a vehicle through which to share with people the important work I am doing — whether it be one-on-one, in a classroom full of kids, via a huge social media network of adoring Fred fans, or on stage holding a microphone! Fred has been my teacher and my mirror. He has shown me what I am capable of and also the places in me that still need work. He has forgiven my trespasses and stayed close to me when I could barely keep from pushing the whole world away. Fred is, simply put, a gift.

Helping bring Fred’s potential as a service dog to fruition has brought my own potential as a trainer to fruition. Not to mention, Fred has acted as a therapeutic force for rescue dogs with severe fear and anxiety owed to the darkness of their pasts. Fred can get any dog to play with him. In fact he won’t let up play-bowing until he has brought out the inner-puppy in every dog he meets. In fact, Fred brings out the best in everyone, human and canine alike.

While it has never been Fred’s job to enhance my life, or be of service to me, or assist me with the particular issues that can render me helpless some days…he has done all of these things. He has done them every single day, without question and without fail. Obviously Fred is destined to enhance not only Ben’s life, but the whole world of which he is such a magical part. And it has been my honor to play the role I have in his life.
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