Mister Pawpower's search for an assistance dog candidate has caused some interesting reactions and these reactions have made me think-- about myself, my reasons for owner training and how it is viewed by the larger assistance dog community. Until around five or ten years ago, it was not common at all for blind people to train their own guide dogs. It was done, just not by very many at all. Owner training was an option used more by persons with other disabilities. People who are deaf or hard of hearing, or people with mobility or medical issues were more likely to train their own assistance dogs. This is because programs which serve these populations tended to have a longer wait list, to have more stringent requirements for acceptance, and to require the payment of large sums of money for their services. A blind person could get a guide dog from a program in under a year after the first application, and more times than not, the dog was given with no fee owed. Guide dog programs didn't have rules about having other pet animals in the home, or other rules about keeping one's retired assistance animal.
However, due to several factors, more and more blind people have made the decision to owner train. I don't think most people understand that this decision isn't made lightly. Owner training is costly, both in financial and time resources. It takes a very specific skill set. The dog has to go through the process of training and the handler has to put in a great deal of focused, intensive labor. The dog could then wash out and the handler is back at the beginning.
Most people put serious thought and consideration into their decision, but many people seem to be asking my husband why? Why would he want to owner train? Why doesn't he go to a program?
I can't speak about Mister Pawpower's feeling and own personal choices. I am not him, and his tale is not mine to tell-- his reasons not mine to explore. However, I can give some general reasons why someone would want to owner train.
Many people owner train because they cannot attend a program. Perhaps their disabilities make attending a program, or working with a trainer from the program in their own home unmanageable. The person may have Multiple Chemical Sensitivities (MCS), they may have such a unique combination of disabilities and considerations that no program feels equipped to train an assistance animal to meet their needs. They may have work, family, or medical commitments which prevent their going away to a program for the specified period of time (usually a month).
Many programs have very specific rules. These programs put these rules in place because they feel it is in the best interest of the populations they serve, and the dogs they train. However, many people don't want to follow these rules. It is highly preferable to find another alternative than to submit yourself to a program whose rules you cannot or will not follow. Many programs reserve the right to repossess the dog if these rules are violated, and the horror and grief over losing your partner due to such a dispute would be much more painful than the impatience of a longer wait for an assistance dog either owner trained or from another program. An example of one of these rules is that some programs state that you may not have other pet, or retired assistance dogs in the home with your working dog. They have their reasons for feeling like this is an important rule, but many people have beloved pets and have managed to go on to have a happy working assistance dog partner and a pet or retired dog living together.
Many programs will not transfer ownership of the dog upon completion of the program. For me, personally, this is a huge sticking point. My choice of programs to attend-- already limited by being Deafblind and using American Sign Language as a primary means of communication, is even more limited because I will not submit myself to a program which will not grant me full and total ownership of my dog upon completion of the training period. People can argue with me until they are blue in the face about this issue, but my mind is very thoroughly made up. We all have "that one thing" which we will never compromise on, and for me it is ownership.
Some people do not want to attend a program because they have firm beliefs in certain training, and rearing methods. Out of necessity, programs have a pretty cookie-cutter approach to dog training and care. They do try to meet every dog's needs, but most dogs will have their needs met-- both behaviorally and physically-- by the training/rearing method of choice. Again I can speak from personal experience. As a clicker trainer and a big proponent of Natural Rearing; it is extremely important to me that my dogs be fed a raw diet as soon as possible, and that they be minimally vaccinated, and treated using a blend of standard medicine and herbs. It is also extremely important that my dog be operant. This means that the dog has realized that she can operate on her environment and that the clicker or other marker has been established as a tool for communication. Many programs use it as a behavior marker, but clicker training is so much more than the clicker. It is a way of thinking-- for the person, and their dog.
Finally there are people who honestly enjoy the process of owner training. I'll grant you, we are few and far between. There are many good reasons for this-- see the part about intensive work above. But we do exist, and for us, it is a true passion and enjoyable experience to train dogs to this level.
The words "harder" and "easier" are very subjective. When people ask Mister Pawpower, "wouldn't it just be easier to go to a program?" They are speaking from their subjective view of what is "easy." For many, it is "easier" to train a dog themselves then to risk exacerbating medical issues, leaving home for a month, obeying rules which chafe, or which go against your grain. For the majority of the folks out there, this is not true. But there are always exceptions.