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Meet the ‘Muggles’ training to become assistance dogs

“It’s a perfect partnership. We’re looking for a dog to train, and the dog is looking for a new home. With the right trainers, behaviourists, foster homes and the right clients we can help rescue dogs lead their best life and become great assistance dogs”

Garry Botterill is a man on a mission. He’s just been tipped off that a new dog has come into a Dogs Trust homeless shelter – and it might make a perfect assistance dog. “Dogs Trust have been brilliant,” says Garry, co-founder of Service Dogs UK . “When we put a shout out that we need a dog, they know what we’re looking for and they contact us. We then spend anything between two and four hours at the rescue centre taking the dog for a walk, trying a few games and exercises, getting to know it. We’ve assessed so many dogs we can tell quite quickly if it’s going to make a good assistance dog.”

Photo credit: @dogsinfocusphotography

Service Dogs UK is one of around 40 assistance dog training programmes around the world accredited by Assistance Dogs International (ADI) which train and place dogs from rescue centres. With millions of unwanted dogs stuck in shelters and facing a bleak future – despite being healthy and trainable – many ADI members see the advantages of giving them a new lease of life.

“It can be challenging, but if you put in the time and effort you can turn a dog around,” says Garry, whose organisation provides PTSD assistance dogs to veterans from the armed forces and emergency services. “What we’re looking for is a biddable, pliable dog that wants to interact with humans. It’s all about the dog’s character rather than their breed.”

Then there’s the cost – not all programmes can afford the significant expense of breeding their own puppies or buying them in from a breeding programme – which, when added to the training costs, can be around £30,000 (US$35,000). “We started off with very little money, and we couldn’t afford to breed our own dogs or buy puppies from breeding programmes, so we had think outside the box,” says Garry. “It’s still an investment – but it’s a different kind of investment in terms of time and effort. You need to put in a lot of time and energy to work on all the little foibles that come with a rescue dog.”

Photo credit: @dogsinfocusphotography

Although different ADI member programmes have different criteria for assessing the suitability of a rescue dog, they will generally look for a dog which is six months to two years old; is confident and approaches people willingly; is friendly with people, other dogs and other animals, including cats; is strongly motivated by food and toys; is not aggressive or possessive; and is healthy and free from undesirable inherited traits, fears or phobias.

“We started by working with dogs aged between 18 months and two years,” explains Garry. “Then came the Covid-19 pandemic and suddenly there was a huge shortage, so we started looking at much younger dogs, from six months old. Actually, we’ve found that’s been really good for us. Younger dogs are still developing, which means we can help train them into the behaviours we want. It’s been really successful for us. Our training success rate is now up to about 90 percent – and in the past two years we haven’t had to return a single dog.”

As demand for assistance dogs grows, more and more ADI member programmes are turning to rescue centres as a source of dogs for training. However, there’s very little solid data comparing the training success rates of rescue dogs and those from breeding programmes. ADI believes that both approaches are equally valid and that the priority should be to train assistance dogs to the highest standards to help as many people as possible – regardless of where they come from.

“Of course there are some drawbacks,” says Garry. “A rescue dog often comes with little background information, so you don’t always know what you are getting. They will often have had limited or ineffective training – often that’s why they are handed in. Guarding breeds like German Shepherds tend to be less suitable for people with PTSD, and terriers can also be a bit of a handful – their yapping could trigger a veteran, for example.”

Despite the challenges, however, rescue dogs have the potential to be as effective as those from special breeding programmes. “It’s like the Harry Potter books,” laughs Garry. “You’ve got the pure-bloods who are going to be fantastic and magical – then you’ve got the Muggles who need to be rescued, but if you put a similar amount of time, energy and training into these dogs they can excel and results can be outstanding!”

by Martin Atkin

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