Updated: Mar 26
Two generations of PADS assistance dogs
By Spencer van Vloten
The 4-legged friends of Pacific Assistance Dogs (PADS) have changed the lives of thousands of Canadians. We talked with Tara Doherty from PADS to learn more about what goes into raising these amazing helpers.
Spencer: What does PADS do, and what type of dogs do you offer?
Tara: In short, we breed, raise, train, and place certified assistance dogs!
We have several different strands for our dogs with different focuses; we can also customize their skill-set for clients with particular needs.
Mobility or service dogs: These dogs are trained to assist persons with mobility limitations. This includes picking up items like keys, opening doors, carrying groceries, bringing over medication or items from the fridge, helping put on or take off clothes, as well as sometimes pulling wheelchairs and providing balance support.
PTSD dogs: These dogs are thoroughly trained in providing a calming and grounding influence to people who experience intense stress, anxiety, and fear. If someone is distraught and has their head on their hands, the dog will lick their face and nudge their hands; if the person is having an episode like a flashback they’ll intervene and interrupt it for them.
Credited facility dogs: These dogs are matched with community care professional and serve in facilities where there would physical, social, or emotional improvement with the addition of a dog and its specially trained dog-handler team. This could be with a victim services facility, a hospice like Canuck Place, in the school system, or in a therapeutic role.
Hearing dogs: Hearing dogs alert their partner to sounds. For example, if the doorbell rings, they lead the person to the sound; for smoke alarms, they will lay down to show that there is an emergency and that this is a special occurrence.
VIP (Very Important Pet) dogs: These are dogs that weren’t suited for public work—maybe they get too excited when encountering groups of people or other dogs-- but are very nice and are placed with children or adults with disabilities who could use a companion. They have many skills and training, and can still perform tasks in the home.
There is a shorter wait for these dogs than our other dogs, so for a lot of people they are a good alternative.
PADS VIP Noosa
Spencer: How do the dogs get into this?
Tara: All the dogs in PADS are purpose bred for this type of work. We started out using rescue dogs to fill demand, but now have no need to go outside our own breeding program.
There are many great dogs who aren't raised in PADS, but most are not quite suited for service, sometimes only 1 in 100, whereas around half of our purpose bred dogs are suitable.
We also work with the North American Breeding Cooperative, doing pool breeding that helps us develop more dogs that are highly suited to assistance careers.
BC does allow self-certification, so that you can take your own dog through the testing and certification process. On the 1 hand, this opens doors for people, as it gives them another pathway and allows them to bypass long waiting lists. On the other hand, you then have to pay for training, so there are challenges either way.
Spencer: What breeds are most well-suited for assistance dog work?
Most of the programs breed Labradors as their primary breed, while some breed Golden Retrievers. Many people think these are essentially the same dog, but they are 2 entirely different breeds.
Labs are more confident and resilient, less environmentally worried. Golden retrievers bring a great people focus, but they’re a bit more environmentally sensitive and can be more easily stressed from things around them.
What we’ve found is that it’s very successful to breed Lab-Golden crosses, because you get dogs who have the best qualities of both, being easy-going, confident, and very dedicated to their partner.
The breakdown of our dogs is roughly:
60-70 percent Labs
20-30 percent Lab-Golden crosses
10 percent Goldens
Gaia shows how she's learned to 'go visit'
Spencer: What is the training process for your assistance dogs?
Training starts shortly after birth. Our volunteers host litters of puppies at home, and begin with basic training when the dogs are a few days old: putting them on surfaces with different temperatures, briefly holding them upside down, helping them understand that world is always changing but still a safe place.
You can see the changes happen fast. Many dogs hate the bathtub at the start, but then train gradually to get used to it, as it’s an area where they are commonly needed for assistance.
So tub training starts by gradually adding some water, then a bit more, then a bit more. Eventually it gets to a point where the dogs love the tub, and some will even curl up and sleep there!
Starting training early helps a huge amount, getting them used to things like this as puppies helps build success down the road.
Then from 8 weeks old on, our dogs work with puppy raisers doing basic skills and preparations for the full PADS training program.
When they are about 2 years old they come live at PADS doing full time training. It takes 9 months to a year learning their skills depending on what stream they’re in.
The full service dogs takes longer than facility dogs, and the mobility dogs have to learn an especially wide range of tasks.
Service dog to be Iroko trains to build his wheelchair pulling skills
Spencer: How do people apply for an assistance dog?
PADS applications start with an expression of interest. This was on pause due to the pandemic, but we are ready to reopen early in 2021.
As part of this expression of interest, we ask people to tell us a little about themselves and how a dog can help them, so we can see if they are a match for our school. We can also refer people to other schools which may be better fits.
If they are a good fit, they are placed on the first stage list, and we look at dogs that are coming up and see which ones might be a good match for them.
From there, we send more info to the person about the dogs whose skills match-up with their needs, and proceed forward.
Iroko with new partner Lindsey
Spencer: What is the cost of a service dog?
Tara: Our clients pay a $50 application fee to show they are committed, as well as a fee for the equipment they’ll get with the dog, but they don’t pay any of the training fee for the dog, which is roughly $35,000.
PADS retains ownership of the dogs throughout their lives, which helps us keep offering check-ins and other supports to make sure things are going great for dog and person.
Spencer: What happens if a person can no longer have a dog or the partnership didn't work as expected?
Tara: Every situation is different and depends on factors like how old the dog is, but the first thing we always ask is what is in best interest of the dog.
Sometimes we can place the dog with a different client that is better fit, sometimes they will be adopted by a family member of the person who had the dog, and in every case we will work to facilitate a good placement for the dog.
Spencer: How long do assistance dog careers last?
The dogs are typically placed at 2-3 years old and on average work until about 10, but it depends on the career path. Service dogs who pull a wheelchair may have shorter working careers because their tasks are more physically demanding.
Our longest serving dog worked as a facility dog until his 15th birthday and loved his job so much that he would get depressed if he wasn’t at work or interacting with people.
Spencer: How has the pandemic affected PADS?
It’s been pretty tough. A lot of our fundraising comes through events, and we can’t do those at the moment. Personal donations have gone down too.
But our community has rallied around us, and we are continuing to operate and keep doors open, while shifting them online. We launched a fundraiser for limited edition plushies of our dogs, which sold out quickly but are now coming back in stock.
At the moment we are supporting over 200 puppies and families being raised virtually, with sessions over Zoom, and even having some of our trainers do clicker training with their husbands in preparation of getting their dogs.
A lot of time and frustration has gone into getting the process right, but it’s happening, and we’ve still placed 26 dogs with clients this year, which is more than the year before.
We are ready for a big 2021!
Spencer van Vloten is the editor of BC Disability. To get in touch, send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org!