Why donate to one service dog organization over another? Aren't they all the same?
Pawsitivity excels at the two most common metrics used to evaluate nonprofit organizations, but we also excel at a third metric. What do we mean by this? Most donors look at ratios such as the amount of money spent on programs compared to admin and fundraising (which Pawsitivity is extremely good at), or the gold standard of donating, which is to examine an impact evaluation (Pawsitivity is the only service dog organization to have a third-party impact assessment done), but we propose an even better metric: creating outcomes which are long-lasting and effective.
We train our service dogs in the same way other organizations do. But we have a very different way of setting the handlers up for success.
The Traditional Service Dog/Handler Training Method:
The traditional way to train service dog/handler teams is to first train the dogs, then train the handlers to be dog-trainers. In this way, the handlers can continue the training for the rest of their lives.
Expecting handlers to become full-time dog trainers is not a sustainable solution. Yes, we love dog training (we adore it), but if handlers had wanted to be dog trainers, they'd be doing that already. That's not to say that the handlers won't enjoy dog-training, but to expect handlers to love it day after day (and year after year) is unrealistic.
Facts on the ground:
- Handlers have a disability. By definition, the people that could be helped by a service dog are the ones that have at least one disability, which makes their lives harder (and by adding the responsibility of continual training of a service dog, that aspect of having a service dog makes their lives harder, not easier).
- Handlers have other jobs (or responsibilities). We at Pawsitivity have full-time jobs, which is training service dogs. Handlers, on the other hand, usually must juggle elements like school or work or family, in addition to the work of keeping their service dog trained.
It's unreasonable to ask handlers to keep up the traditional model of continual training of service dogs. As Deming, the father of modern quality control, says, when there are continual problems, it is always the system that is to blame. Blaming individuals never works. People must be set up to succeed.
Pawsitivity's methods are very different than the usual service dog/handler training approach.
- While Pawsitivity trains service dogs in the same way other organizations do, Pawsitivity uses a relationship-based approach to dog handling (as opposed to a training-based approach to dog-handling). We have found that when a service dog fully bonds to their handler (which usually takes about six months of the dog living with the handler, including special exercises that help this aspect), then a relationship is established that the handler will continue for the rest of their lives. Keeping a relationship going comes more naturally to most people than keeping up with specific training protocols. While yes, we could teach handlers the push/stick/drop method of dog training, for instance, that sort of dog training expertise is unrealistic to expect a handler to continue to hone and polish. It's like training someone how to drive a race car, then giving them a one-of-a-kind Indy 500 car and expecting them to make their own custom-parts for it for the rest of their lives. Yes, theoretically, it's possible, but it's not setting up the handler for success. We want to set up the handler to succeed with their service dog for the next decade, and by focusing on the relationship, the handler has a dog that is very focused on them and wants to please the handler. Keeping up desirable behaviors is much easier when the relationship is on firm footing and the dog can read the handler's body language to help figure out what the handler wants. Additionally, the dogs have been trained in positive ways so that the dogs are offering behaviors that can be rewarded (instead of a more traditional dog-training approach that creates a dog that will only offer behaviors that are specifically trained).
- We teach the handler handy routines and give them physical tools to help work with their service dog. Handlers are sometimes surprised at the specificity in which we instruct them, but we find by teaching daily routines that are just as easy as their current routines (but serve the dual purpose of keeping the dog trained), handlers can easily incorporate dog-training into their lives, almost as if by accident. A good example is when the handler likes to go on daily walks with the dog and we encourage "training walks" that incorporate sitting at corners, practicing figure-eights before entering doors, and feeding the dog by playing the Watch-Me game during the walk. We also incorporate special equipment that we insist the handlers use because that equipment encourages good habits. For instance, the only leash we give the handler is a waist-leash, and the waist-leash has a treat-pouch attached (with poop bags in it). Thus, whenever the handler is going out with the dog, they have a whole system of equipment to use, and that equipment always includes a treat-pouch. When the handler uses equipment with a treat-pouch 365 days a year, they are so much more likely to actually put treats in the treat-pouch (and to reward the dog when the dog exhibits desirable behaviors). We encourage handlers keep their poop-bags in the pockets of the treat-bag, so whenever they need to use a poop-bag, they are going into the treat-pouch (which reminds them to keep the treat-pouch full of treats). If the treat-pouch was separate from the leash and poop-bags, it would be all too easy to forget to bring treats on outings, but when the equipment is always together, the handler is set up for success.
- Pawsitivity dogs are chosen for their mellow relationship potential, rather than their high-energy obedience potential. Most traditional trainers like to use high-energy dogs with a high prey-drive (for instance, a dog that obsesses about retrieving balls) because these dogs are very easy to train. Unfortunately, these kinds of dogs are often hard to live with. Most handlers find that a mellow, low-drive dog has the laid-back sort of energy that is easy to be around 24/7/365. Yes, low-key dogs are more difficult to train initially, but we are not trying to train 40 dogs a year. We only train a few dogs per year, and thus we have the patience to work with mellow dogs that are harder to train, but once trained, are much easier to live with.