By Debby Kay © January 2015 all rights reserved
When I was growing up my father kept a kennel of hounds, so all the dogs I knew where his dogs. I asked for my own and finally when I was six he got me my first dog very own dog, a female tri colored Chihuahua that I named Candy. Over my years in dogs I have had a total of 19 Chihuahuas and have really come to enjoy the breed. I mentioned to my husband Sam I would love to have another one that I can also use to demonstrate my training methods at my workshops, but it would have to a very special dog if he/she was to represent what a small service dog can be like.
Several months ago a russet colored Chihuahua at a Dog Days street festival stole my heart. He was wearing a tiny scarf that said, “Adopt Me”. I watched him for quite some time as dozens of dogs of every breed and size imaginable went by. He stood quietly unless one of them stopped to sniff and then he would sniff them back, wagging his tail the whole time. The shelter volunteer that was holding his leash had no awareness of what the dog was doing. At one point two people each walking well-muscled pit bull terriers stopped to chat with the girl holding the Chihuahua. Since the people were engaged in conversation they failed to see the challenging stare that the two pits were giving each other. The tiny Chihuahua offered some calming signals to the two larger dogs but neither were paying any attention to him and in an instant the Pits were lunging and snarling at each other over the top of the Chihuahua. Quickly the Chihuahua backed off a safe distance and watched quietly as the two dogs tried to rip each other apart. When the whole mess was finally stopped and the aggressive dogs left, the little dog just looked after the retreating dogs with a look of amusement. I smiled and walked over to the Shelter table and asked if I could adopt the little dog whose name I learned was Boo.
Boo acts like he has lived in our house all his life. The integration has been seamless. You would think a Chihuahua in a house with 15 Labrador Retrievers would be hiding all the time but nothing could be further from reality. Boo walks with the Labs and hunts birds with them and will retrieve anything that he can carry or drag just like the Labs. He realizes he is small and will stay out of the way when the Labs get crazy and start jumping around a lot but otherwise they treat him with the same respect they give any other adult dog; size doesn’t matter.
I am in the process now of training Boo to be the demo dog for the medical detection workshops I teach. I want people to know not all service dogs have to be medium to large size dogs like Labradors. Small dogs have a definite place in the world of service dogs. They still have very good noses and can alert on scent changes in a human, they are capable of activating an alarm, and can very well get someone to help if needed. For many people who live in apartments with limited space the small dog is the perfect answer. The best part about the smaller dogs is they fit into places the larger dogs do not such as on public transportation. The down side though is many of them are not as willing to work as some of the larger typical service breeds are, so finding a really good one can be a long and arduous search. I got very lucky when I found Boo. He is smart, willing, and just slightly larger than most Chihuahuas, weighing in at 8.1 pounds, which is about as small as you would want for a detector dog.
Some other considerations when looking at size for your potential detector dog is their face structure. Be aware that dogs with too short a muzzle could possibly have breathing problems, which would interfere with the detector work. Boo had a nice length muzzle for his size, which helps him with his scent work. Many little dogs I had been looking at only wanted to sleep and had no interest in work, so it was refreshing to see Boo with his eager to please attitude and insatiable appetite for tasty treats. Both of these qualities help a dog learn the scent lessons they will need so they are high on my list when screening potential dogs. As with the larger breeds, the smaller breeds have their own list of potentially serious genetic problems such as patella and teeth issues to name a few, so it is important to learn what these are for the small breed you are considering. Boo checked out clean on all these points as well.
The obedience training part of the service dog work with a small dog is the same as with any other dog. I do not make any excuses for a dog to not learn obedience just because they are small. There is no need to carry a small dog everywhere, they are capable of walking and in my opinion they seem to prefer it. If I do a lot walking, Boo does get tired as he is working twice as hard or more to keep up with my stride, so I make sure he has sufficient rest time to recover and have also taken care to build up his stamina. When I first got Boo I enrolled him immediately into a Manners Class at the local obedience school where he graduated 8 weeks later with his AKC Canine Good Citizen award.
The greatest challenge in training the small dog as an alert dog has been with the alert itself. It is easy to teach the sit and paw when a person is in the house, or at a desk such as in an office. What is more difficult is to teach the alert when you are out walking. To overcome this obstacle, I am working with Boo to have him grab a tab and tug on it. I have tried several different ways of doing this and may have hit on the right design when it occurred to me that something on his leash would make the most sense. I’m working with my service dog leash maker now to get that set up and can’t wait to share the photos with everyone when we get the final design worked out. I mention all this to point out that while training a small dog is a challenge and there are limitations to what they can do, there is no reason you can’t train your little guy to help out and experience the success I am finding as I move along the program with Boo.