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Difficult Transitions

Updated on June 9, 2013
Image credit: lisafx / 123RF Stock Photo
Image credit: lisafx / 123RF Stock Photo

Change is difficult”---We’ve all heard this saying and perhaps we can agree that this may be the biggest understatement there is. Change can be worse than “difficult”; it can be exhausting, stressful, and overwhelming. We also know that change is inevitable---it is one of the most frustrating aspects of the human experience. Any person who chooses to bring a dog into their life is faced with the sad and unavoidable fact that dogs don’t live as long as we do and they will eventually leave us and we must start over. Service dog owners face the same dilemma and perhaps they face it in a more powerful way because of the intense close relationship they have shared with their service companion for many years. I have observed and assisted with hundreds of successor dog transitions in the course of my 23 year career as a service dog instructor. I am continually amazed at the strength and resilience of people and their strategies for surviving and succeeding in the transition from one service dog to the next. It is a unique experience for every person, and yet so many people employ similar strategies to cope with the change.

I have not conducted quantitative research studies on what makes one transition challenging and another one smooth and almost effortless. I can only offer anecdotal observations over the last 23 years. However, there has been research conducted at other service dog programs regarding this subject and the research suggests that there are some transitions that are more challenging than others. There seems to be a particular challenge when a handler transition from their first service dog to the second. The service dog community has coined a term for this particular transition---‘Second Dog Syndrome’---though certainly the challenges identified here can occur with the 3rd, 4th or even 7th service companion. This ‘syndrome’ can occur with any transition but seems to be most dramatic when the handler is matched with a second dog. Most first time service dog handlers come into their first training experience with very little knowledge about the ‘lifestyle’ of living with and handling a service canine. They have few and low expectations about what to expect. These 1st time handlers then enjoy a very strong and powerful experience with their 4 legged companion for the next 5,6,7 or more years. When the 1st companion is retired, they struggle with the loss and find the transition to the 2nd dog to be very emotional and conflicting. They objectively try not to compare the dogs but comparing dogs is normal and inevitable. If the new service animal has different temperament or physical attributes than the first, then the conflict and emotional struggle is made more difficult. To further complicate the issue, the new dog may require different handling skills or may display initial, poor behaviors that further erode the service dog user’s ability to see past the negative things to the potential positive aspects of the new dog. People often forget the negative behaviors that their first ‘beloved’ companion displayed and can only remember the positive, ‘perfect qualities’. The 2nd service dog then becomes flawed or ‘not as good’.

Kerry Peirce and Katherine Ward are instructors with Guide Dogs New South Wales/ACT, Australia. They recently published a paper about Second Dog Syndrome and presented their findings at the IGDF conference in Ottawa Canada last summer. For their research, they surveyed twenty of their blind service dog users who had transitioned from their 1st to 2nd Assistance dog. The results of the survey were very consistent with our observations. In their research they reported the following: “More than half (65%) (Of service dog users) had had different expectations of their second dog in comparison to their first and 53% found training with their second dog emotionally difficult.” Also, Many of the participants reported being surprised at just how different the second dog was from the first with regard to the dog’s temperament. Participants reported an expectation that the dogs would have greater similarities, “after all, the first dog was a Labrador and so is the second”. Other attributes such as size, speed, and gait were mentioned as obvious differences that may not have been anticipated.”

It is easier for an instructer--- objective third party observer--- to see the positive qualities of the 2nd (or any successor) dog and to recognize that there will be normal transition ‘kinks’ that must be worked through. Please know that as instructors, we always try to be very sensitive to the emotional conflicts that are going through clients’ minds as they work through the transition, and our goal is to help bridge the gap and build the trust between the client and their new assistance companion. Instructors are not therapists and some situations require professional support to work through challenges. I would like to offer a list of strategies and guidelines that I’ve witnessed, that allow for very successful transitions to a successor service dog:

  1. Don’t assume that a new, young service dog will be well behaved at all times, like the previous one. Expect puppy behaviors and avoid creating bad behaviors by restricting the new pup’s access and freedom until they earn it!
  2. It is very common for long time users to develop very strong breed and gender preferences, particularly after a very successful first match. Preferences are fine, and even expected, however it is important to remember that there is a huge variety of personalities within the same breed and gender. When considering matching options for your next service dog, consider focusing on the temperament and work qualities that you loved about your previous companion and not so much about the breed, gender or color. Some of the most difficult transitions I’ve witnessed occurred when a client made a strong request for the identical breed, color and gender—a.k.a. ‘clone’ of their first service dog-only to be matched with a dog that ‘looked’ identical but temperamentally was not a good fit.
  3. It is natural to compare dogs. The problems arise when a client believes that the new service dog does not measure up merely because of the differences. Finding ways to embrace the differences is the key to success!
  4. Find comfort in others! I’ve found so many clients find success through community and talking about their feelings and frustrations. It is invaluable to learn from the experiences of others and learn that people have gone through your same experience and have been successful. Many handlers find great support from other service dog users on-line or by being a part of a local service dog support group.
  5. Ask for help! Don’t assume things will just ‘get better’ if you are seeing poor behaviors or are really struggling with bonding with the new dog. If you received your service dog from a training program, contact them promptly for support. If you have a self-trained service dog, consider hiring a local reputable dog behavior expert, who has experience working with service dogs and modifying behaviors.
  6. Consider counseling or attending a mental health support group if you are really struggling with the loss of your previous companion. Until you work through all the emotions related to your loss, it will be very difficult to move forward and embrace your new, eager service companion.

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