Written by Brian Reedy
In my last post I talked about researching the difference between emotional support animals and service dogs, how we made the determination of what would be the best kind of dog for my situation and why I decided to train him myself. You can read that post here.
In this post I want to share what I’ve done to train my service dog Dempsey, the most important advice I’ve been given and some resources that would be useful to you should you choose to train your own Parkinson’s service dog.
If you’re wondering if a service dog would be right for you, here are some of the amazing things that a service dog can do for a person with Parkinson’s:
- Help maintain a comfortable walking rate or gait
- Help with balance and forward momentum
- Prevent freezing
- Help initiate movement when freezing occurs
- Help prevent falls
- Get help if a fall occurs
- Provide quiet and genuine companionship
- Help with depression and anxiety
- Help promote exercise through daily walks and playing
- Help to assure medications are taken (and on time)
If you want to see a couple of cool Parkinson’s service dogs in action, check out this video where you can see two dogs helping their people with Parkinson’s.
When we first looked into the idea of getting a service dog to help me with my Parkinson’s, we weren’t sure if we could afford one or that even if we could, if we wanted to wait years to get one. So, we decided to find and train the dog ourselves. It’s working out pretty great so far.
I don’t want to suggest that it’s easy to train a dog and deal with Parkinson’s while still trying to accomplish other things in my life, but it’s definitely proving to be worth it.
I got Dempsey when he was seven weeks old and that helped a lot. He didn’t have to unlearn much and he easily bonded with me because I became his parent and provider.
Over the past few months I’ve been amazed at what he’s learned, how far we’ve come as a team and how much I count on him for my quality of life.
With the help of my own research and advice from other experts, here are nine actions I’ve taken with Dempsey that have made all the difference and that I would recommend to anyone training their own service dog.
#1 – Socialize
Socialize your dog to all types of sights, sounds and experiences as soon as possible, in as comfortable a way as possible.
To do this I bring Dempsey on car rides, expose him to boundaries in the house and in the yard, acquaint him to some less than pleasant sounds and introduce him to a lot of different people in a variety of settings.
The goal is to help him get comfortable with these sights and sounds when he’s a puppy so he doesn’t become anxious or apprehensive when he encounters these sights and sounds in the future.
For a great checklist on how to socialize your service dog, go here.
#2 – Reinforce with a Word or Clicker in a Consistent Manner
As you teach a new dog desired behaviors, I was taught to use the word “nice” as a command right before I gave him a treat.
It may seem excessive, but it works. The consistent rewarding and word reinforcement helps, and sooner than you might think. Using a word is the same as using a clicker, but since my dexterity isn’t what it used to be, a voice command is easier for me to perform quickly.
Also, when you reinforce behaviors, it’s more effective to focus on positive reinforcement and to refrain from yelling or raising your voice with your dog.
#3 – Teach Potty on Demand
It’s important to teach a service dog to do their business on ANY type of surface. The best time to do this is early in the morning when they really have to go. As always, praise them significantly when they do it correctly. This takes time. Rocks, roadways and concrete were more of a challenge for him to master but teaching him to go on demand has been possible with patience and persistence.
A good rule of thumb is to teach your dog to relieve himself within two and half minutes of being given the command, within three feet of where you’re holding him on a leash and on any surface.
#4 – Give Lots of Love
In a perfect world, people would see a service dog vest on your dog and leave it alone. But that’s not what happens; so, you have to prepare your dog to be touched. I do this by handling him a lot, touching every part of his body and giving him lots of love. This way, when a doctor or child or very curious adult wants to give him lots of love too, he doesn’t get defensive. Clearly Dempsey is thrilled with the attention.
#5 – Take Your Dog Everywhere with You… Almost
Ideally you would take your dog everywhere with you so that it becomes used to being in all of the different places you have to visit. However, there are some exceptions. For example, if your dog is not very well-trained and does not respond quickly to ALL of your cues and commands, you can be asked to leave a location or place of business for not complying with the ADA standards for service dogs. There are some areas where even service dogs are not allowed to go such as sterile environments like procedure and operating rooms, places where computer chips are manufactured and others.
It’s a good idea to have a service dog conversation with your doctors and places you frequent to give them a heads up that going forward you will be accompanied by your service dog. They can’t tell you that you can’t bring the dog; however, they may require that you bring a second handler for the time that you’re in the treatment room or some other location in the office. It’s best to get this cleared up ahead of time so that you get the care you need while also keeping a positive relationship with the people and places you visit.
#6 – Use a Crate
Dogs actually like going into their crate. They’re happy and safe places for them to be. The trick is to reinforce their desire to go into their crate by teaching them that it’s their “kennel” from the very beginning. Fill it with a couple of toys and a comfy dog bed so it feels like home. Then each and EVERY time you want them to go into it, say “kennel.” Eventually you’ll be able to use the word “kennel” to teach it to go under the table when you’re in a restaurant, or under a chair at the doctor’s office waiting room, which has proven to be very useful to me.
#7 – Make Your Dog Feel at Home
Make a comfortable place for your dog to be in places you frequent, especially in your house. For example, in my office and in my garage I have a little mat for Dempsey to lay on with a place to tie him down in case he suddenly jumps up or has the urge to get into stuff. Once he’s strong enough to follow commands and stay, he won’t need to be tied down.
#8 – Keep Learning
I’m having fun and learning a lot by watching guide dogs for the blind training videos on youtube. There are many helpful suggestions for people who are training their own service dogs and inspiring stories about dogs and their owners.
#9 – Keep Your Papers Close
Technically you don’t have to have any papers or documentation with you regarding your service dog; however, I find it helpful to carry certain papers to help in case there’s some confusion. Since I have a 100% disability with the Veterans Administration (VA), I sometimes carry my 100% disability letter. I also carry my dog’s vaccination records. Recently some business have been clamping down on what they allow in as service animals, so it’s more convenient to have them with me.
Training Dempsey has turned out to be one of the great joys of my life. He’s my buddy in all things, I can always count on him to be there and he’s been a great addition to my care team. If you’re considering getting and training your own service dog, please feel to reach out to me via the comments section. I’d love to help in any way I can. And the great plus to all of this is that I’m doing better overall and have more time to relax with my wife (who is my most amazing care partner in all of this)!
Wonder How You Can Afford a Service Dog?
If you’ve done any digging on this topic, you’ve likely heard how expensive it is to get a service dog, but there are ways to make it happen through grants, fundraising and a variety of service dog organization. To learn about options, check out Life-changing companions: How to afford a service dog.
CONNECT WITH AN AMBASSADOR
Among other things, Brian Reedy is a retired teacher and now, a dog trainer. He’s also part of our cohort of Davis Phinney Foundation Ambassadors. Our Ambassadors are volunteers who share resources and information throughout their local and regional communities to help people take action and improve their quality of life with Parkinson’s. Connect with one of our Ambassadors and begin your journey today of living well with Parkinson’s!
Help Move Research on Service Dogs and Parkinson’s Forward
If you’d like to be part of early research efforts that are looking into the efficacy of service dogs for those living with Parkinson’s, please take this survey.
This information is very good to know and to pass on to others who may have more immediate needs than I have at this time.
I don’t know how my service dog could help me to take my meds on time. I do in fact have a real need in that respect.
Service dogs can be trained to retrieve medications as well as fetch a bottle of water to help a person to swallow their medications. While helpful, if this is your only need at the current time, a service dog may not be a good fit just yet. However, I would encourage you to look up a service dog organization in your area to learn more about how a service dog may be able to help with other symptoms or down the road. Since the wait lists for these organizations can be long, it never hurts to start an application early!
You can try this: link feeding time to when you are supposed to take your meds. Start off by dividing your dog’s daily ration into the number of times you take meds daily. Make it a routine! Your dog will remind you to take your meds when she reminds you to feed her!
This is a great recommendation, Ann! Thanks for sharing some extra advice!
I love your story. I just recently lost my chocolate lab Murphy. He wasn’t my service dog but he was my best buddy and confidant. He got me through the worst days of my Parkinson’s. I am so torn on wether or not I want to get another dog. Murphy was only 6 years old and my heart is heavy, I miss him so much.
I’m so sorry to hear about Murphy. It sounds like he was a wonderful companion and a great dog. Give yourself time to process this terrible loss and honor Murphy. You may not be ready to welcome a new dog in your home just yet, but if you are considering a service dog, I would begin the application process now as it will take some time before they have a match for you.
I was diagnosed with PD 4 Year’s ago and am strongly considering a service dog to be part of my team for the same reasons you have listed. I have had dogs in the past; however, i’m Not sure what is best for me. Training him myself or trying to get him trained.
There are numerous factors to consider with either option. Long wait times and cost are major deterrents but you will be receiving an animal who has been properly trained by professionals to work with your Parkinson’s. However, by training an animal yourself, you must first build a firm foundation of basic commands, house training, and prepare them for the many sights, sounds, smells that a service animal experiences. This process takes time, patience, and dedication. Once the foundation is created, training your animal as a service animal will require daily diligence to ensure they are properly learning their tasks. Make sure to evaluate how much time and energy you will have prior to adopting your puppy. Thanks for commenting!
What a fun story. We bought Zelda two years ago as a service dog, but she failed Assistance Dogs of the SW intake interview. She’s very smart and knows lots of commands, however, and I’m wondering if training her ourselves is the way to go. If so, how do you get certification or do you need it? Thanks!
Thanks for sharing, Karen. There isn’t any federal certification that can indicate your dog is a service animal. So whether you train Zelda yourself or receive a service dog through a organization, you won’t receive any official document that proves it’s certified. It’s best to carry documentation stating disability and up-to-date veterinary records.
Your story is perfect. I have been diagnosed for 13 years and despite my exercise freezing is a real issue. Putting my hands on my husband or son’s back is how I get through tight spaces. The wait time is my concern. How do I find the right breed/ and dog? Seems like I would need a bigger breed than Dempsey. Would this make it more difficult to travel, i.e. with a bigger dog?
Hi Kathy – It’s really difficult to know what would be the right breed for you. I recommend you talk to dog experts in your area, maybe a vet and various dog trainers, to learn what you can about different types of dogs. Here are a few articles to get you started on what to look for and how to align your goals with your choice in service dog:
Best of luck on your search.
I must council those who are seeking a trainer or seeking a trained service dog. There are NO regulations relating to how dogs are trained. There are only vague guidelines that are provided by the ADA law. Buyer beware!! Do your due diligence!! Do your homework on the trainer(s), their business, do your homework on how they pick the dogs, the breeds they use, and their training methods. Guide dogs for the blind have an average cost of $30,000 to $60,000. Service dogs follow closely to those same figures. Dogs, whether purebreds or mixed breeds, inherently have physical and mental issues. Do research before investing. Read up on the y Talk to the vets and references both professional and customers provided by the trainer you are considering,
If you are planning to train your own dog, I go along with Brian Reedy. Training the dog from a puppy and following his guidelines is the best way. There is also merit to recycling a rescue dog. HOWEVER, either option DEMANDS a great deal of work, dedication, patience, consistency, and a great deal of commitment. My husband foster-raised pups for Guiding Eyes for the Blind. You must put the work INTO the dog to get ANYTHING of value out of the dog.
Hi Bernadette – Thank you for reading. And thank you for your advice. I think you’re spot on. Moving a dog from a family pet to a trained service dog is no small feat. And it takes a great deal of research and knowledge about dogs and their potential and temperaments to know what kind of dog would be best for your situation. Thank you for pointing out these important factors to address when considering getting a service dog.
As the cost of a professionally trained SD is prohibitive for me, I’ve decided to train my own. I do experience in basic training, a little in specialized training, and lots of books on SD training specifically. But is there a guide for teaching tasks specific to parkinson’s?
Hi Jazherah – Thank you for reading. I do not know of any specific resource for training a dog for someone with Parkinson’s. Since everyone with Parkinson’s has different symptoms, and they experience them to different degrees, I think it’s more important that you work with a qualified trainer who has experience with the issues you would like the dog to help you with. If you go on youtube and search for Parkinson’s service dogs, you will be able to see a lot of really great videos of people with Parkinson’s working with their dogs. It’s so inspiring and hopefully, it will be helpful to you.
I notice that you say there is not specific certification, but are you able to travel with your dog as a service dog? My mother has Parkinson’s and we just got a new Goldendoodle puppy. I’ve quickly realized how smart and easily trainable she is and now I’m considering training her to help my mother when we travel to by air to Europe but I assume we would need some sort of document stating that she is a service dog. Is that the case?
Hi Sandrine – Thanks for reading. I know the rules about service animals are getting much stricter these days. My recommendation is to first check with each airline you fly and see what their rules for service dogs are. Then, I’d read this page for more information: https://www.ada.gov/regs2010/service_animal_qa.html and see what you may need to do from there. I hope this helps.
My husband Shane has early onset Parkinson’s (he’s 54). We just added a new member to our family…a 16 week old Aussie puppy named Maverick. I am very interested in training him to be my husband’s service dog (beginning immediately).. I bought a book on the subject on amazon, but would LOVE any help/
resources that you could offer us on our new journey. Thanks in advance….
Hi Jamie – Thanks for reading. This is a big but exciting undertaking! Here are a couple of posts you might find interesting as you begin your journey training your dog:
When it comes to training your dog, we recommend finding a very experienced dog trainer in your area who has experience training service dogs. If they have experience training Parkinson’s service dogs even better, though they can be difficult to find. A great deal of time, effort and patience goes into training any dog and a service dog even more so. We wish you the very best on your training and congrats on your new puppy!
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