If you’re a member of the service dog community, or even just getting into the swing of things- at some point, I’m sure you’ve heard of someone ‘washing’ their service dog or service dog in training. “Washing their service dog? Why, they should do that more often than once. Just do it when they stink,” you think to yourself. No, we’re not talking about the actions involving some warm sudsy water and an inadvertent shower for yourself; we’re talking about something that can be absolutely heartbreaking to handlers. It is a decision that is often reached after many tears have been shed, loads of thinking and processing has been done, consulting of professional advice and second opinions, and often, more tears. ‘Washing’ in the service dog world, is when a puppy or dog is deemed unfit to continue assistance work – while still in training or even as a fully trained service dog.
Well how does that work? When a service dog is washed, it can mean many things as far as ‘severity’ is concerned. Perhaps they are being washed from doing public access work until some issues can be resolved, or in more extreme cases, even completely relieved from being a service dog altogether. It’s something that can happen to any handler of any experience level. We have to remember that dogs are not robots, and giving them the task of helping to assist us can sometimes be too much for certain dogs, and that not every dog or puppy is cut out to be a service dog. We say it in the service dog community all the time, “Slow is fast.” Sometimes it is necessary to take a step back, reassess the dog’s progress (or lack thereof), and decide if it is time to relieve the dog or puppy of its duties as four-legged, furry medical equipment; and to maybe try again later with a different dog.
So when do I know to wash my service dog/service dog in training? It all depends. Sometimes the commitment to our dogs can override the hurdles we run into in our training. But if you’ve tried working through what is setting your dog back and things just aren’t improving, and if it seems you are making less and less progress or undoing previous training, then it may be time to consider washing the dog from assistance work after exhausting all other options. Of course, attempting to work through whatever issue there is will be the first option; but sometimes even professional help cannot turn things around enough to continue working certain dogs.
Listed below are a few common reasons why a service dog might be washed. It is often times one or a combination of these examples that a service dog doesn’t work out for the job.
- Burn out.
Slow is fast; often times when a new handler receives a puppy or dog to train as a service dog, it is overwhelmingly exciting to think that they will soon provide some sort of independence and freedom in the not-so-distant future. However, this excitement often leads to rushing the dog’s training. Dogs (and especially puppies) can become easily burnt out on constant repetitive training if done for too long at one time. Some handlers rush the public access portion of training and end up overwhelming the dog or puppy; leading to stubbornness or fear. Reluctance to obey commands or other behavioral issues are often a result of asking too much from the dog/puppy too soon. This is absolutely one of the most common and unfortunately easy ways to reach a ‘washout’ stage.
- Behavioral issues.
Every dog will go through a fear stage, if not two or three. What becomes concerning is when those fear stages don’t seem to have an end in sight or can’t be worked through. Service dogs must be confident and comfortable enough to adapt to many different environments and still remain able to assist their handler. If public access work causes your dog or puppy to consistently tuck tail, give ‘whale eyes’, whine, cry, lose control of their bladder or any combination of those behaviors while doing public access work; it may be time to reconsider if they are ready or able to be a service dog. Fear can also often lead to aggression; something that is a huge ‘no-no’ for service dogs. The ADA does not protect service animals who display aggressive behaviors, such as growling, excessive barking, lunging, or any behavior that threatens the safety of the public or other service animals. Extreme reactivity is another behavioral issue that falls in line with fearful and/or aggressive behavior. For example, if there is a random loud crash in a store and the dog tries to run away, or makes it difficult for the handler to maintain control, it can pose a safety issue to the handler and the dog may be washed if it cannot be worked through.
- Medical Problems.
First things first – there is a very grey area between what is legal and what is ethical to do (or not to do) in the service dog world. It is a general consensus among handlers however, that if a dog is medically disadvantaged or especially if disabled, then it is unfit for assistance work. This can include anything from psychiatric issues to amputations, and many more. It would be unethical to continue working a service dog who is now fearful of other dogs or people because they had been attacked while on the job and suffer from PTSD. Similarly, if a dog is deaf or blind, it would not be suitable for the job of assisting a disabled handler. Many times though, these medical issues can be abrupt or unpredictable altogether. Some handlers have had to retire or wash their mobility assistance dogs due to developing hip dysplasia or genetic disorders. Sometimes even puppies have been washed from their service dog training because of other medical issues, such as hypoglycemia or megaesophagus. While it is not illegal per say to continue working service dogs with medical conditions, it is extremely frowned upon. Asking a dog to assist a disabled person when the dog itself is not 100% healthy is highly unethical and can be unsafe for both dog and handler.
- “Too much dog.”
Yes, service dogs can be washed for being themselves. It sounds silly, but believe it or not, it is another very common reason to discontinue assistance training for a dog or puppy. If a dog/puppy cannot maintain focus and is easily distracted, is too hyper or rambunctious, or overly defiant in it’s training (too headstrong), he or she will most likely be washed. The job of assisting a disabled person requires a service dog to have an impeccable temperament, which is often very difficult to find. They must not be too lazy, nor too energetic, able to walk easily with their handler with little to no break in focus, and able to assist their handler at any given moment in a wide variety of environments. This is where many handlers struggle, especially when selecting specific breeds to best suit their needs. Even the most laid back breed on paper can produce a whirlwind puppy, and it happens more often than not. Using puppy aptitude testing can help tremendously, but is not a clear cut guarantee that you will choose the “perfect” prospective service puppy.
So, how do I keep my service dog or service dog in training from washing out? The answer is one that nobody ever really wants to hear – it is impossible to predict a wash out. There is no guarantee that even the most perfect puppy or the most suitable dog will graduate on to become a full service dog, and even the most ‘bomb-proofed’ service dog has potential to wash out. But there are certain methods you can use to try and help you and your dog or puppy be as successful as possible:
– Work closely with a professional trainer and/or dog behaviorist. Its always helpful to get a second opinion from an outside perspective, and especially when you’re picking your future candidate or stumped on how to train something.
– Take training slow. “Slow is fast.” Make a sticky note of it if you need to (it helps). It takes an average of about 2 years for a service dog to fully complete training. You have plenty of time to take it slow, trust me.
– Take breaks, and let your puppy be a puppy. Giving your dog/puppy breaks will help prevent them from becoming overwhelmed. Don’t forget that even though service dogs have a big job to do, they are not robots and need to be able to be dogs too.
– Be honest with yourself. If you are lacking in certain areas, ask for help! It’s okay to have hiccups, and they will happen.
– Learn how to be receptive to setbacks and fear stages. This too, shall pass.
– Set realistic goals for you and your dog, and don’t compare your dog’s progress to other teams. Each dog and handler is different and will need different amounts of time to “get” certain things.
– Maintain consistency. Repetition and positivity are super important when training any dog, but even moreso with service dogs.
– Use a partner and/or video record training sessions. Training logs are especially helpful! Through documentation, you can get verbal and/or visual feedback to determine what you need to work on more/less.
– Don’t stress. Just breathe, relax, and try to have fun! Our disabilities drag us down enough as it is; having a dog should be an enjoyable experience, and having a positive mindset will help out tremendously in the long run. Also remember that dogs can be very receptive to their human’s stress, so try to be relaxed and confident in yourself and they will usually follow.
In a nutshell, there are many reasons a dog or puppy may be washed from service dog work. People typically think that it happens mostly with owner trainers, but this is simply not true. Canine Companions for Independence, a service dog training organization based in Santa Rosa, CA, has a very selective breeding program and a rigorous training program for their future service dogs. Even still, only about 35 to 40 percent of their dogs graduate to become full-fledged service dogs.. This kind of “make or heartbreak” can happen to anyone; from handlers with no prior dog training experience, to the best professional dog trainers in the industry. Do not let a washed dog discourage you, for it may at the very least have produced a very obedient pet. Many times, it can provide handlers with the experience and insight of how to approach things the second or even third time around. Washing a dog is not the end of the world, and certainly doesn’t necessarily mean you are a bad trainer or dog owner if you do have to wash a service dog or service dog in training. Some dogs and puppies just weren’t built or meant to be service dogs, and that’s more than okay too.