Dogs for the Disabled selects puppies at around 6 weeks of age. The program chooses puppies that seem confident and social. Most dogs in the program are Cocker Spaniels, Labrador Retrievers or Golden Retrievers.
When puppies are 7 to 8 weeks old, they go to the home of a volunteer who helps to socialize them until they are about 12 to 14 months old. Volunteers attend monthly classes run by the program’s puppy coordinators that focus on basic training and consistency. The puppies visit as many places as possible in real-life situations to help them with socialization.
When they are 14 months old, the puppies leave their volunteers’ homes to begin formal training. Trainers work on obedience and on developing a puppy’s consistent response to commands. The puppies are introduced to specific requirements that a client may have, such walking alongside a wheelchair or retrieving dropped items. The puppies must meet certain standards set by Assistance Dogs International.
At the age of 20 months, puppies who pass the training assessment move on to advanced training with an instructor who focuses on the particular needs of a client. Advanced training includes making sure the dog is responsive to verbal commands or hand signals consistently and accurately. The trainer also helps to develop specific skills, such as helping an owner to undress, retrieving named items and assisting an owner with getting out of a chair. After about three weeks of advanced training, the trainer matches the puppy with an applicant.