There are a few options that were made available to us when we met with APAW as to how we would proceed in terms of a service dog for J-Bear. The options are to either wait for a 1.5-2 year old dog, fully trained and finished; bring home a dog most of the way through their training but much younger and work with them through their finishing training (6 months to 1 year of age) or to bring a puppy home and be their puppy raiser/socializer. This is a lot to take in and consider given the amount of work that would go in to bringing home a very young dog or a puppy, plus we have to weigh how dogs create bonds and how to best plan for the best bond between J and his new partner.

That said, we pretty much ruled out waiting for a 1.5-2 year old dog. It is not that a dog at this age and stage of complete training could not possibly bond with J. There’s a lot of amazing dogs out there that could roll easily with the slings and arrows of a kid with autism but it would potentially not come easily to them. J’s weird would not come with easy fluency, it would be their second language that possibly never quite got perfected. This isn’t the best route to a strong relationship.

The option we are hoping for is to bring home a puppy and become the puppy raiser for his dog. It seems mildly insane since, well, it’s not like a day in life with J is always simple and straightforward yet it offers such an amazing opportunity. It is a great learning opportunity, a great chance to let J be deeply involved with his dog’s future and the highest probability that he and his pup will speak each other’s language with natural ease.

There are a ton of questions people generally have about what this would entail. I asked for some of your questions on Facebook earlier so here’s some answers. Remember, I am a student in all of this rather than a scholar. I am learning both from asking people who are pretty expert in puppy raising as well as reading pretty much everything I can get my hands on. If you’re a puppy raiser or trainer and have anything to add, please definitely reach out!

Can you look at a litter of puppies and pick out the ones that could be good service dogs? Or is it less about temperament and more about training?

I could not, for love or money, look at a litter and pick out which dogs might be good for service work and which ones might not. All I see are cute, wriggly puppies! However, service dog organizations that breed their own dogs work on this even before a puppy is a glimmer in their mama’s eye. The dogs are bred for temperament, good health and other desirable traits for the service tasks the organization predominantly trains for. Their heritage is carefully studied, their genetics vetted and the overall health of each parent’s line taken into great consideration. Once the litter is born, the caretakers and/or trainers are deeply involved with them from the start. They spend the time getting to know each puppy and their development and over years of working in the field have honed the skill of identifying the strengths of each pup and the likelihood of them being good for service or other tasks.   When you consider a fully trained service dog, it really is as much about training as temperament but as a puppy, it is temperament and trainability that matter most.

How is being a service dog puppy raiser/foster different that a family that adds a puppy to their family?

When you start, a lot of it is kind of the same! You must housetrain the dog as well as kennel train them, teach them good manners and begin them on basic commands. You should socialize them as soon as their vaccinations allow it and put forth the effort to teach them to be a good canine citizen in your little corner of the world. You should have them meet many different people, hear many different sounds and teach them that new and uncertain situations are not necessarily scary. It helps them become confident and calm as they grow up rather than perhaps skittish or furtive.

The two paths diverge when your puppy starts that socialization phase. When a puppy is being raised to be any kind of service dog, the socialization process is stepped up. The puppy goes everywhere humanly possible with their handler. It is on the handler to make sure they are safely exposed to a wide, wide variety of people, places and things that most of us might never think of or that we take for granted passing by in our day-to-day life. J’s puppy, for example, will need to learn early on to be calm and comfortable with the chaos of a playground. They will need to be comfortable visiting doctors offices and hospitals, museums, stadiums, amusement parks, airports and subways. The earlier that these things become normalizes for the puppy, the better.

It’s very easy to write about making a puppy comfortable with all of these experiences, it is a very different experience to actually do it. It involves a lot of time, patience and repetition as well as carefully reading the dog to make sure you are not pushing them beyond their comfort zone too far, too fast. Thankfully, we have already had a fearful dog. If you keep  your eyes open, recognizing their limits is easy enough to do and gently coaxing them through fears until confidence can be established is rewarding.

There’s also the question of basics in terms of training. You teach manners and expectations along with basic commands like sit, stay, heel and come. You’re teaching the pup how to behave while in restaurants, how to stay out from underfoot in stores and how not to be nosy towards strangers while you’re waiting in line or caught in a crowd. A lot of this is reinforced more in advanced training but the basics start early on for the pups to make sure it is muscle memory for them.

I know there’s a lot of details I am missing. It’s a thing that I do. If there are more questions that I can answer (or get the answers to!) or if there are further questions based on what’s here, I am always happy to help. There’s going to be a lot of learning in the coming year and I am looking forward to sharing that with you all.

Oh, and posts with 100% more puppy pictures.