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An Assistance Dog Gone Wild?

A case study of problematic behavior in a novice handicap assistance dog.

Key points

  • Bonita Bergin's concept of a handicap assistance dog is informally implemented in a young dog.
  • Several useful commands, including "Brace" and "Crutch" are taught to provide temporary handicap assistance.
  • The requirements of obedience competition and a less-than-steady handler can cause unexpected complications.
Erik Lam/Shutterstock
Source: Erik Lam/Shutterstock

This is a case history of a service dog of sorts.

Some time ago I broke my ankle. At that time I owned a handsome black flat-coated retriever, named Odin. He was one of the brightest and most biddable dogs that I have ever had. I was training him for obedience competition, and he turned out to be an excellent student and a willing performer.

As chance would have it, I had entered Odin in a couple of dog obedience shows in the hopes that he could finish his CD (companion dog) degree before the beginning of June when I was scheduled to go on a book tour. Obviously, I had to cancel out of the competition since I required a pair of crutches to move around.

A Novice Handicap Assistance Dog

I was already aware of the work of Bonita Bergin, who is often credited with inventing the concept of the assistance dog, especially those service dogs providing help for physically handicapped individuals. She went on to found the Assistance Dog Institute and later to become president of Bergin University of Canine Studies. Using her work as a model, I decided to make the best of my current misfortune and used the opportunity to teach Odin some basic handicap assistance commands that might be of help to me until I healed. The first was "Brace," which caused Odin to stand rock still, leaning slightly against me, to brace me when I had to stand up and there was nothing convenient to grab hold of to steady myself. I also taught him to pick up small items that I had dropped, and even to turn a light switch on and off. One useful command that I taught him was "Crutch." I was always dropping or misplacing my crutches, and this command instructed him to look around, find my crutch, retrieve it, and present it to me like an oversized game bird or a dumbbell.

An Obedience Dog With Benefits

I finally healed to the degree that I could move around with only a single crutch (freeing my other hand to hold a leash). It happened that another obedience trial was coming up nearby at Cloverdale, British Columbia. I had sent my entry in just a couple of days before my accident. I reasoned that since I was already entered I might give it a try. The Tuesday evening before the show, I took Odin to the Vancouver Dog Obedience Club (where I instruct and train my dogs), and we gave him a quick run-through on the novice obedience routine.

There is now a body of evidence that shows that well-trained service and therapy dogs are not stressed by doing their job, and actually seem to enjoy it. However, Odin was not a fully trained service dog, having had only a couple of months of training by me. So I was not surprised to find that he was a little spooked at having to heel near the crutch on my left side. Still, I knew that he could reliably do the obedience exercises and felt that he was steady enough so that I might hazard a try at the competition on the weekend. It was to be an all obedience trial, which meant that conditions would be less noisy and crowded than a combined confirmation and obedience show—"Who knows," I thought. "It might work."

There were two obedience trials that day, and in the morning Odin was calm and steady. I took him into the ring, and he heeled quite widely to avoid my swinging crutch, but other than that he did everything well. Maybe the judge was just being kind, or thought that the whole scene was comical—in any event, we got a qualifying score. It was only a 173 (minimum qualifying is 170), but it was his second leg for the CD.

Pushing the Envelope

I felt that we were on a roll. I was hurting from all the walking around, and Odin was still a little suspicious of the way that I was moving, but since we were already at the show venue, and I had also entered for the afternoon, I thought that I would give it a chance. If it worked out, Odin would have his third qualifying score and his first obedience title.

Things did not start well. I was tired and unsteady, and Odin must have worried about my uneven movements. He heeled even wider than he did in the morning, and this particular judge seemed to be less tolerant of the situation.

We made it all the way to the "heel off lead" exercise with, perhaps, a marginal shot at qualifying. Odin's leash had now been unclipped and we got ready to start the heel free. The judge came up to me and said, "I know that you are handicapped at the moment, but when I give the command 'Fast' please try to get a proper fast pace this time."

I nodded, and when he ordered "Fast," I broke into the best run that I could under the conditions. This was a tottering hobble, with wide swings of the crutch. It was all too much for my less-than-two year-old, minimally trained, "assistance dog." He tucked his tail under his hindquarters and broke into a wild puppy run (what people generally refer to as a "zoomie"), circling the ring at high speed. The judge raced over to me yelling for the steward to get a leash.

I turned to the judge and, although I was a bit embarrassed and panting from the exertion of my "fast" pace, I explained, "It's just my unsteadiness and the swinging of the crutch that spooked him."

At hearing the word "crutch," Odin made one more high-speed circle around me. His great black head rose by my side as he snatched the crutch from my hand and raced forward. The judge was now apoplectic: "Quickly! Get a lead! Somebody subdue this dog!"

Before anyone could do anything, however, Odin spun around and finished the crutch command as I had taught him—coming to a perfect front and sitting squarely with the crutch in his mouth at exactly the appropriate distance for me to bend over and take it from him. I did, and then quietly told him "Swing." With confident and quiet grace, he stood up, circled around me, and sat down in the ideal heel position. By this time the ring steward had recovered my leash. It was handed to me by the red-faced judge who was shaking his head and breathing hard when he said, "You are excused. You need not return to the ring..." As I turned to go, I saw him turn to the ring steward and heard him add under his breath, "...ever."

I eventually fully recovered and my "temporary handicap assistance dog" went back into the obedience ring and continued on to earn three obedience titles—but not under that judge.

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Bergin, B. (1998). 25 Years of Service Dog Innovations. 7th European Regional Rehabilitation Conference. Jerusalem, Israel.

Clark, S. D., Martin, F., McGowan, R. T., Smidt, J. M., Anderson, R., Wang, L., Turpin, T., Langenfeld-McCoy, N., Bauer, B. A., Mohabbat, A. B. (2020). Physiological State of Therapy Dogs during Animal-Assisted Activities in an Outpatient Setting. Animals, 10(5), 819.