5 and ½ Dogs That Were on Death Row, but Beat the Odds and Became Service Dogs
I have spent the majority of my career working with Service Dogs or “Assistance Dogs” in one form or another.
I have worked for a number of different organizations, and even ran my own until I had to move across the country and was unable to continue.
Although I worked with a couple of organizations that did some puppy raising, I found that the most rewarding work came from taking adult dogs from shelters, saving a life, and training them for individuals with disabilities.
Chance and Lucky
Chance and Lucky were probably my very first experience working with surrendered dogs that became Service Dogs.
At the time I was working in Wisconsin for the Liberty Dog Program. A revolutionary (for the time) program that was run in a men’s correctional facility that gave both the men and the dogs a new “leash” on life. Incidentally, this was my very favorite Service Dog experience, as I could see the importance it had on the lives of the men and the dogs, AND the Service Dog recipients!
Chance and Lucky were Golden Retriever and Border Collie mixes or at least that is our assumption due to their appearance. They were given up by a young couple with a family because the family was tired of their antics, so they were dropped at the local shelter. We liked renaming them because we felt like they getting a new and exciting opportunity.
They Were Given Up Because They Were Out of Control
I fell in love!
Ironically, all they needed was some dog obedience, structure, and training in their lives.
It turns out, when given a job, Chance was a mellow guy with a very sweet and nurturing personality. He was actually placed with a 5 year old autistic boy.
The dog, once given up for being too crazy, was eventually tethered to a child. If you think about it in those terms, it blows your mind.
His brother “Lucky” and I were soul mates. I bonded to him hard! He was so very intelligent and willing to work and do anything. I spent a lot of time taking him all over in public places.
After life forced me to move, he was actually adopted and used by one of the other trainers as a demonstration dog to help educate the public about the important work Service Dogs provide.
This is why I consider him the ½ ;) He lived the life, but wasn’t truly a working Service Dog.
Freedom was an Aussie mix that I adopted out of a shelter in Colorado. I had just began working with the organization as office administrator, and because of my previous experience at the prison program, I was also utilized as a trainer.
Even though she passed the temperament test, she was full of sass! She had actually been adopted out and returned to the shelter 3 times. She had been at the DDFL for almost a year.
I loved her for her intelligence and innocent sauciness. And it was my duty to make sure she didn’t go back to the shelter! I couldn’t give up on her.
She was always up to a little bit of no good but loved being in public. She had a way of making eye contact with the public and drawing them in to pet her. Essentially, she was a “flirt” of mass proportions and had an affinity for children. But I didn’t mind, because it allowed me to educate the public about Service Dogs.
She Was Afraid of Stomping Behind Her
Her biggest issue was being afraid when anyone would stomp up behind her. She would tuck her tail and try to run. She was never aggressive, but as a trainer, I knew if I couldn’t fix this problem, she would be failed. After all, you can’t be a Service Dog and have fear issues!
There were 5 of us trainers and after the initial month of basic ground work, the dog would go to another trainer to be worked and evaluated further. This made our placement process so much easier because the dog was so used to working for a variety of trainers. It also meant that dogs that weren’t right for the program got failed quickly when they went to a different trainer, because emotions weren’t involved
I spent so much time stomping and clicking! I undoubtedly looked like a lunatic in public when I was trying to desensitize her.
The good news is that I didn’t give up and it worked! And we placed her with a client who was just as full of sass as she was, who also had kids for her to play with and love.
Incidentally, I cried when I placed her ;) even though I knew she had the job of her dreams. It isn’t easy.
Balto was one of my first placements with my own organization.
The mother and father of a 4 year old boy came to me because they were either denied by other organizations, or they were expected to raise or pay close to 15,000.
I placed all of my dogs free of charge. I couldn’t charge the family of a disabled individual or child. I knew the struggle. And, I needed to be able to live with myself and sleep at night!
Lucas had mobility issues and needed a dog to help him walk. His parents wanted him to leave the security of his walker and learn to balance more on his own for his physical development.
I used the breed that many would have discounted.
Balto was a Greyhound. And, an ex-racing Greyhound at that!
Yes, A Working Greyhound!
No one could believe that a dog that once chased things for a living could be tethered to a 5 year old and learn some impulse control as well as advanced obedience. He made the local news and the front page of the Denver paper.
I even taught him to retrieve (which is a small miracle with this breed of dog).
My only hiccup in training came when Balto went to school and visited a classroom with a class “bunny”. Apparently he thrust his head into the open cage but didn’t harm the bunny.
So he came back to me, I got a pet bunny to train with, and we taught him a more solid leave it with small animals!
They were an adorable pair. And, Lucas left his walker for a cane in one hand and a dog in the other.
Eternity was my “project” dog. I was fundraising to pay his expenses by raising him for a country music artist who was my friend at the time. His fans would also provide him with these lavish birthday gifts, but my idea was instead of buying him a “thing” we should donate money to saving a dog and placing it with a deserving human.
Eternity came to our program as a WILD 2(ish) year old 100+ pound Labrador Retriever.
He was one of my best “training feats”.
He Pulled Me Down and Skinned My Knee
The first day I brought him home from the shelter (he can been given up for being too big), he pulled me down and skinned my knee.
Admittedly, that made me angry. But I knew he had the heart to do the job!
His size and exuberance made him a challenge.
I kept him on a leash full time at home, just to control his puppy antics and teach him basic control.
He had a complete lack of impulse control and would spin when it was dinner time.
His biggest challenge was learning to ride escalators.
He was terrified.
Again, not aggressive, but he didn’t want any part of moving stairs. If he refused he would have to be released and placed as a pet.
The first time I tried to tackle an escalator, he nearly pulled me off and threw me off. The drop would have been well over 10 feet.
It required 3 of us trainers. One to get on with another dog first and block his ability to run forward. Me to lock and load him onto the escalator. And another trainer to keep him from running off of it backwards.
If he remained calm, I would reward him with a click and a full piece of cheese (quite the jackpot for him).
Within a few short sessions our worries went from being pulled off the escalator, to being pulled on and toward it because he wanted his reward.
He went to one of my favorite clients, ever, named Matt. Matt suffered from a traumatic brain injury and was a big man.
He needed a dog to balance and counter balance for him and to assist him when that injury caused a seizure.
He and Eternity were the perfect pair and totally suited for each other.
Matt enforced rules and loved Eternity, but didn’t let him get away with even the slightest bad behavior!
They were well known for working on the campus for the college in Ft. Collins, CO.
London was one of my favorite “saves”.
Many service dog organizations and rescues are contacted as soon as a potential adoptable dog that might fit the bill comes through.
After all, shelter staff wants to get the good ones out as fast as possible.
Sure, some of these dogs (usually the really naughty ones that no one would expect) are on their last day, but many of them are quickly ferreted into more suitable situations.
London was literally within a couple of hours of euthanasia.
We were visiting a high volume shelter, mostly animal control, in the city of Denver. The truth is that few dogs ever made it out. With Denver Dumb Friends League and other shelters being more aesthetically pleasing and easier to get too with more variety, this shelter just didn’t beat the odds very often.
One of the shelter staff had contacted me.
He’s Not The Type
“He’s not the type”, she said on the phone. He is not a breed I have ever seen as a Service Dog. But he is sweet, and rescue won’t take him because he is a mix.
In this field, you often have to make a trip at the decree of another, even if you think it is futile.
However, I like to think of myself as less “breedist” and more of looking for a certain type of temperament.
Many organizations look at certain breeds and discount other breeds.
I didn’t want to be one of those.
You see, he was a Husky mix.
Huskies are known for being difficult to train and difficult to contain, among other training and personality problems that would make them nearly impossible to be handled by a disabled client.
I’ll admit it.
I took one look at him and I had my doubts.
But this little guy passed my temperament test with flying colors.
He was always so mellow (I think the Collie offset the Husky).
His biggest issue?
He Would Yodel When He Wanted Attention
I would be buying groceries, with him on a down stay down an aisle and he would “WOOOOOOO WOOOOOOO” with his best Husky voice.
Some unwitting shoppers found this behavior a bit disheartening and startling, since they didn’t expect a dog in their grocery store. But he was never issuing anything but a friendly greeting.
I had to teach him to first “use his inside voice” by quieting his bark or “yodel”. After all, it is instinct for Huskies to yodel, so breaking such a fundamental instinct completely would be difficult, if not impossible.
And, then I learned that he was less flirty by using his mouth if he was with me and busy. So I opted to leave him in less down stays or up to his own devices.
We placed him with a lovely young girl who suffered from a traumatic brain injury.
She went from being ignored and left out of everything, to becoming very popular because everyone wanted to find out more about “London”.
He facilitated her ability to be social and popular.
He also gave her unconditional love.
Want Your Dog to Behave Like a Service Dog?
If these dogs can turn the odds in their favor, any dog and owner can!
It only takes a few minutes a day.
You don’t even have to force your dog to obey!
Spend 5 minutes a session, 3 times a day, teaching your dog something new or refreshing old skills!
It’s that simple.
Play the clicker game and wait for a good behavior you can reward.
The reason that working dogs are calm and so seemingly well-adjusted is that they have a job to do and feel needed all of the time.
Don’t Get Overwhelmed
You aren’t going to tackle all the commands at once or even change all of his bad behavior right away.
But by simply investing 5 minutes a session, 3 times a day training your dog, you will utterly change your relationship!
Give it a try!
I have been a professional dog trainer and pet sitter for over 20 years. I am a Certified Professional Dog Trainer, through the international Certification Counsel of Professional Dog Trainers. I have trained and worked with police, Schutzhund and personal protection dogs. I trained Assistance Dogs in a men’s prison and ran my own nonprofit organization to take adult dogs from shelters and to train them to assist children and adults with disabilities, at no charge to my clients. My nonprofit organization and I were nominated for several awards of merit and even made the front page of the Denver Post. I was a veterinary technician for many years, where I learned about all aspects of health and preventative medicine. I have trained and worked with exotic animals and cheetahs. I introduced a temperament testing program in my local shelter and sat on the board of directors. I volunteered with my dog “Mr. Snitch” and helped local children learn to read. I have attained obedience titles and several blue ribbons. I am constantly in search of ways to continue my education and excellence when it comes to animals, their behavior and their health.