by Laura Douglas, Good Dog! Associate Director
Congratulations to our newest graduating teams - Ryan & Marvel, Danielle & Bella, and Lauren and Justice. On August 24, 2019 we had three new service dog teams graduate after an intensive week at team training! In honor of our recent team training, we would like to take some time to share more about the bonding process that our parent handlers and their new service dogs go through during the week. As part of our placement process, primary handlers, who are typically parents, spend five days at team training living in a house together, taking classes on dog handling, and practicing handling their dogs in the classroom and on public field trips. There are typically 3 - 4 parents going through team training at a time, strangers who are now living in close quarters with one another and several other Good Dog! Team members. What makes this week especially unique is that throughout all of this, these handlers are attached to their dog by the leash 24/7 (yes, even in the bathroom) and they are not allowed to speak to one another or the Good Dog! team outside of class time. Many parents arrive to team training shocked to learn that they must cohabitate with their new friends silently (No, they can’t even text one another), that they’re not allowed to interact with any of the other dogs, and that the dogs can’t interact with one another.
So why do we put our new parent handlers through this during an already challenging week? Although it can feel torturous, this “umbilical cording” period helps with almost everything related to the dog/handler relationship and future together. Because they are physically attached to one another at all times and isolated from interacting with others in person, the dog and parent must put all of their focus on one another. Not only does this accelerate their bond, but it also allows the dog to learn the parent’s benevolent leadership style, which improves the team’s working relationship. The dog and parent quickly learn to communicate both verbally and nonverbally. This time also accelerates the parent handler’s understanding of their new dog: what motivates the dog, what’s reinforcing to the dog, where the dog prefers to be pet, what tone of voice is needed to give instructions, and what energy level is needed to pep the dog up or calm the dog down. Parents and dogs don’t practice working on tasks after class, but we see that this intense bonding period contributes to the parent becoming a better dog handler and the dog feeling more secure with their new leader. We recommend that parents continue to “umbilical cord” with their dog for a short period of time after they go home to further reinforce that relationship in a new setting with new distractions. The more you listen to and focus on your relationship with your dog, the better a benevolent leader you can be for your team. We encourage anyone trying to build a better relationship with their dog to try this method, at least remaining physically attached to the dog’s leash at all times, if not going so far as to ignore other members of your household.