What’s it really like to train a service dog? In one word, the answer is “hard.”
The more complicated answer would be mentally, physically and emotionally draining, but entirely worth it.
I will paint you a picture of the journey I took starting Sept. 25, 2015.
As you begin your year-to-a-year-and-a-half commitment with your 8-week old puppy, things will change as soon as you hold the puppy in your arms for the first time.
Your daily schedule will change to now involve at least three twenty-minute walks. You’ll have the opportunity to explore the unique sights of Waterloo, like the beautiful Waterloo Park and the historical Voelker House on Young St. that looks like it belongs in Stars Hollow.
You will have enlightening experiences interacting with strangers who tell you their personal stories of how a service dog has impacted someone in their life.
One story that resonated with me was a boy with autism who was too afraid to get on the school bus every morning until he met his service dog.
His dog gave him the confidence to walk on that same bus, now without fear or anxiety.
While training your service dog, you will also interact with harsh, critical people who can cast a shadow on your day with few negative comments.
“Wow, looks like he’s not going to pass.” “Clearly you have got a lot more training to do.”
Sadly, I’ve experienced these very comments on numerous occasions.
Along the way, you will meet new friends who are on the same journey as you, who understand your struggles and joys on a deeper level.
They will be standing next to you in the middle of a muddy field watching about 10 black labs run around, throwing their bodies into puddles.
You will also receive daily smiles: smiles from strangers, professors, friends and family. That’s the ability dogs innately have: to make people smile simply from the sight of their droopy eyes and wagging tails.
You will educate strangers in the grocery store on the many types of service dogs and the integral roles they play in bettering lives, leaving people slightly more knowledgeable on the topic after just a few minute long conversations.
I chose to volunteer for the NSD puppy raiser program because I am an animal lover who wants to have a positive impact on our world.
I ended up learning more than I ever imagined: about myself, human capabilities for compassion and the animal-human connection.
About 16 months later, you will receive an email that shatters your heart, stating that it is time for your dog to enter advanced training, where he will be one step closer to becoming a certified service dog.
You must drop your fully-grown companion off at the same centre where you picked him up from many months ago, when he was smaller than the size of his current head.
But you know that you endured the many mentally, physically and emotionally exhausting days so that one day your dog will belong to someone else.
And that “someone” needs him even more than you do.
As I write this piece, I am preparing myself to say goodbye to my 18-month-old Labrador and Bernese mountain dog cross named Diesel in a few days.
It will be one of the toughest days of my life, but this experience will not leave me feeling empty.
As much as the dog changed your life, he will change someone else’s in an immeasurable way.
When your journey ends, your dog’s is just beginning.