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Graduating a service dog team

One of the service dog teams is about to graduate! What an amazing time!

Here's the inside scoop on K-9 Prodigy's owner-trainer service dog program, and the graduation requirements. All the requirements are based on recommendations from Assistance Dog International, but there's also some K-9 Prodigy-specific ones!

1) Minimum training hours. 120 hours is the minimum recommended through Assistance Dog International. Since our dogs come in through a variety of backgrounds, the K-9 Prodigy training hour requirements are 120 hours for a dog with a substantial training, obedience and socialization background and 180 hours for dogs with less previous training.

These have to be focused training hours. It doesn't count as socialization training if you go to the beach and lie around for four hours with your dog. You could only count the time you were *actively* training the dog. Many clients training logs are filled with brief 5 and 10-minute training sessions. Those add up!

The hours have to be spread over a minimum of six months. In other words, you can't just crash-course a dog through 120 straight hours of training and be done in a week. That's just plain not training. A dog needs time to settle into training, develop routines, and understand service work as a way of life.

2)  Public access test. We follow the public access test developed from Assistance Dogs International down to the very letter! The test is videoed and kept forever. The test is then reviewed and marked by an "outside" trainer not affiliated with K-9 Prodigy. Since K-9 Prodigy is such a small organization, I don't have the luxury of having colleagues and panels on-hand to review the dog's progress. So having this set of "outside eyes" really helps, as well as provides independent verification of the teams public access skills.

3) Taskwork and proofing. It's important not to just train the taskwork, but also to make sure that it sticks and that the dog is able to perform under any circumstance. There's even off-leash proofing! The dog's taskwork is also videotaped to provide documentation.

4) Transition to work. This is important because, especially for owner-trainers, it can be a hard jump from "in training" to "fully working" team. Transition to work sessions involve ensuring the dog can work on his own without too much training/handling/reinforcements/etc and that the handler can get needed life tasks done without the dog being an impediment.

5) Before a handler graduates, I make sure that he or she understands not only the legal rights of service dog handling, but also the responsibilities. I'm a big fan of "service dogs should be seen but not heard." A service dog should be unobtrusive and the team should function fluently. Handling fluency is important before a team should graduate.

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