By Laura MacKenzie
You may have seen this whimsical photo of Service Dogs attending a relaxed matinee performance of Billy Elliot at the Stratford Festival last August. Actor Mark Hamill did. He tweeted, “The empty seats would be understandable if this was a performance of Cats.” Although the dogs thoroughly enjoyed live theatre, this day was not about the performance…rather it was all about our “Service Dog Teams” and their training protocols.
A “Service Dog Team” is comprised of the handler and the service dog. These teams are formed to enable those living with anxiety, Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and a range of other disabilities to function effectively in public. The Stratford outing gave the teams the opportunity to have a wonderful time, but also desensitize their dogs to loud noises, narrow seating, and crowds of people.
Our furry attendees and their handlers are supported by a comprehensive obedience program which teaches foundation skills like leash handling techniques, proper positioning, leadership skills and the basic obedience foundations: sit, down, stand, stay, heel, leave it and off. Dogs and handlers are taught to communicate and engage with each other through a series of obedience and compliance exercises that develop a relationship of trust and understanding. Once this relationship has been established, task work can begin. Tasks range in complexity from picking up an object that the handler has dropped to alerting the person or others to a medical concern. Successful task and mobility training begin as the dog matures and the dog’s ability to focus and cope with the stress of training improves. The training also introduces the dogs and handlers to external stimuli, other animals and loud noises, which cause distraction. The teams work in public, on different modes of transportation, in malls, restaurants, movies, theatres and grocery stores in order to practice and desensitize the dogs. Training is enhanced as the bond between handler and dog increases. Another key element of the training is Public Access. This training focuses on dog and handler etiquette when out in the public. Initial training of a service dog takes 2 years. The training process is continual as the team navigates through activities throughout their partnership.
So, we can see that there is much work to be done before we get our team in position to feel comfortable enough to enjoy an afternoon at the theatre.
As a postscript to the “Dog Day Afternoon” in Stratford photo going viral, we have noted an increase in requests on information on Service Dog training and trained Service Dogs for purchase. I think one of the best things that Mark Hamill’s tweet did was create more awareness for inclusion and the use of service dogs.
Laura MacKenzie is the head trainer and owner of K-9 Country Inn Service Dogs.