The hardest part of owner training a service dog isn’t the task training or teaching them how to behave in public, although both are certainly challenging. The hardest part is knowing when you need to wash a dog out of training for any number of reasons. Trying to cope with it afterwards is always a struggle. Many handlers, including myself, deal with issues of guilt and self-blame among other negative feelings. Washing a service dog out is not talked about nearly as often as it probably should be so this is here to hopefully help handlers along with the process.
Some background on myself. I’ve personally washed out two dogs. The first was my Newfoundland, Ashim. He formally washed at about 19 months for general anxiety as well as a fear of automatic doors that he just could not (and still hasn’t been able to) get past. He’d been pulled from public access for around two or three months at that point trying to work on his issues. While he made progress, he never made it to where he would need to be as a service dog. Looking back now just over a year later, it isn’t surprising because his dam was also an anxious, fearful dog and he never had a particularly quick recovery time compared to successful service dogs. Ashim stayed with me and continues to work as an in-home service dog.
The second was a Great Dane named Malec. He was supposed to be a started dog from a well-known (at the time) service dog program when I got him. Instead he was an abused, emaciated dog that had developed an extreme fear of people. With a lot of counter-conditioning he has made incredible progress but he will never be able to be worked as a service dog. Malec will likely be rehomed due to a number of factors.
When to Wash
First let’s go through some issues that can pop up that should make you really consider washing your dog. There are few issues that are an immediate wash but there are several that mean you should pull the dog and have him assessed by a behaviorist.
1. Dog Reactivity
First things first. In this sense reactivity is a broad word that really just means the dog shows too much interest in other dogs. This can manifest as excitement, frustration, fearfulness, aggression, or other extreme reactions. If your dog is showing signs of dog reactivity you should pull him from public access and work on it with a trainer or behaviorist.
Even if you don’t think you’ll ever encounter another dog while he’s working, you can’t ethically work a dog with reactivity issues. You can’t risk running across another service dog and your dog reacting and causing the other service dog to miss an alert.
After spending some time working with a trainer or behaviorist they should be able to tell you whether it’s something that can be worked through or not. I always advocate working on the problem before making the final call to wash rather than just washing the second a problem arises. That said, talk to your trainer or behaviorist. They’ll be able to tell you more about your specific situation and if it’s something they think the dog can get past.
2. Human Reactivity
Similar to dog reactivity, human reactivity is any over-the-top reaction to seeing a person. Whether it takes the shape of excitement, fearfulness, aggression, or anything else. With any serious human reactivity, you should immediately pull from non-pet friendly public access (or all public places depending on the severity and the type of reactivity). Of them all, excitement is by far the easiest to fix (and most puppies will go through it) and very rarely ends with a dog being washed from work.
On the other hand, fearfulness and aggression are serious issues that require the aid of a behaviorist or experienced trainer. Service dogs can’t be reactive to people in the slightest because of the nature of their work. They should be calm and relaxed with people all around. Even with people grabbing their ears or tail or running up to them or any of the other nonsense some members of the general public pull.
Like with dog reactivity, an experienced trainer or behaviorist will be able to tell you more about the dog’s future and whether or not they think it will be able to progress to a point where it can work as a service dog with no problem.
3. Startle Response
Startle response is a bit trickier than reactivity to recognize as an issue. Basically, if your dog is startled by something how long does it take them to recover and bounce back from it? It shouldn’t take longer than a few seconds. If your dog doesn’t recover relatively quickly you may have an issue. Service dogs need to be bombproof. Of course, that doesn’t mean they shouldn’t ever be startled. They’re dogs and it will inevitably happen at some point. Instead it simply means that if your dog does get startled they should almost immediately recover.
If it takes them a significant amount of time to recover you should pull them from public access, work on confidence building exercises, and meet with an experienced trainer or behaviorist so they can evaluate his response and give their advice on what to do. It’s not an immediate wash but you should prepare yourself for the worst if this is an issue for your dog.
4. Generalized Fear / Anxiety
Recognizing general fears or anxiety in your dog can be a bit more difficult than noticing reactivity. If you haven’t already I strongly suggest studying up on dog body language and how to recognize stress signals in your dog. Some general signs of stress include hypervigilance, lip licking, panting, whale eye (the white of the eye showing), and ears back. There’s more than that of course so definitely read up on it and make sure you can recognize it in your dog.
If your dog is constantly stressed in public then you need to pull way back on their outings for a bit and keep them short and sweet once or twice a week. Meet with a trainer or behaviorist. Let them evaluate your dog and see if there’s any particular cause of his stress or if he’s just generally stressed in public. Some dogs can recover with proper conditioning and patience and make great service dogs. For some dogs the anxiety runs too deep and they’ll never be fully comfortable working. A trainer or behaviorist should be able to give you an idea which category your dog falls into and guide you on how to proceed.
A service dog can’t be protective of their handler at any time. If your service dog in training shows any trace of protective behavior (particularly anything verging on aggression) they should be pulled immediately from all public access and evaluated by a behaviorist. There is always the possibility of extenuating circumstances and a dog reacting that wouldn’t normally react protectively in any other situation.
Regardless you need to seek a professional opinion on their reaction. Don’t try telling yourself it was just a one-time deal and hoping for the best because it may happen again. It’s worth spending the money on a behaviorist to find out what’s going on and what you should do to prevent it from happening in the future (or at the worst, if it’s going to be an ongoing thing and you need to wash your dog out). Imagine what could happen if a service dog tried to “protect” its handler from EMT’s or police officers when the handler was unresponsive. It’s crucial you talk with a professional to see if it’s going to continue being an issue or not.
Service dogs need to be in peak health to do their job. If your dog has moderate to severe hip dysplasia it shouldn’t be working so as to not exacerbate the pain they’re in (or will be in as they age). Other disqualifying issues include seizures, deafness, blindness, arthritis, anything that requires constantly being medicated (beyond minor allergies), pretty much anything long term that affects their ability to work (whether because of pain, discomfort, or really anything else). Unfortunately, health issues are the one thing that is an automatic wash at any age, whether it’s a young dog still in training or an older dog that has to be immediately retired.
7. Unhappiness Working
Out of all the possible reasons to wash out your service dog in training that have been mentioned in this article, this one is probably the hardest to recognize. Unhappiness while working can manifest in several ways, from not wanting to come to you when it’s time to leave the house to sluggish behavior and obedience while out in public. Your dog should be enthusiastic about getting to go to work, even if it’s a calm enthusiasm. You can likely tell by looking at your dog’s body language and eyes if they’re enjoying their job or not.
If you think they aren’t for any reason it’s a good time to talk to a behaviorist or trainer about your concerns. It could be something as simple as your dog not being comfortable with the way its vest fits. Or it could unfortunately be that the service dog life isn’t for them. Sometimes a short break from work and slowly easing back in will help a dog begin to enjoy working again.
Unhappiness while working can often be a sign of burn out, meaning the dog was asked to do too much too fast. While they may be physically capable of working, if they don’t enjoy it that doesn’t mean it’s okay to make them work. Your service dog’s happiness is important. Sometimes that means making personal sacrifices for the sake of their quality of life.
Coping After Washing Out Your Dog
The most important thing about coping and dealing with the fallout of washing out a dog is that there is no right or wrong way to cope (so long as it’s healthy and you’re not hurting yourself or others). Do what works for you. These are just some pointers to help remind you that it’s normal to struggle and some advice on how to get through it.
It’s absolutely crucial you let yourself grieve over washing out your dog. Whether you spent two months or two years training that dog trying to form it into an incredible service dog, it doesn’t matter. This dog was supposed to be your lifeline to let you live an independent life and it didn’t work out. And it isn’t fair and it sucks. So, let yourself grieve. Scream (not at your dog of course), cry, curse, do whatever you need to do to get it out. Talk to someone if you need to, whether it’s a trusted friend or family member or a therapist. Don’t bottle it up and pretend like it doesn’t bother you if it does (of course, if it doesn’t more power to you, you’re valid too).
Let yourself go through every phase of grief. The anger, denial, blame, it’s all normal. It’s not going to be a linear path. Some days will be easier than others and some days you’ll backtrack and struggle more than before. There’s no wrong way to grieve and there’s no right way to grieve. Don’t beat yourself up for grieving differently than someone else, or even more or less than someone else.
Lean On Your Support System
You should also find a support system to help you through this. Whether it’s friends, family, fellow handlers that have gone through the same thing, a therapist, or really anyone that cares and understands what you’re going through. In my experience fellow handlers are by far the best at understanding what it’s like compared to other people. Not because other people don’t care or try to understand, but because they can’t understand exactly what it’s like. You need people you can talk to that will just listen without judging or saying unnecessary remarks.
During the next weeks to months after washing your dog out you may find yourself thinking negative things about yourself. Whether you’re blaming yourself, thinking you failed them, feeling guilty, or really any self-hatred at all. It’s normal but it is so important that you fight those thoughts. No matter why your dog washed out it absolutely is not your fault and it doesn’t help you or your dog to blame yourself for it. Taking care of your mental health at this stage is crucial. Make sure you keep your support system close to help keep an eye on your mental health.
There is nothing that can be said to make the process any easier unfortunately. Make sure you make time for self-care in whatever form that is for you. Whether it’s bubble baths and spa days or cleaning or reading or watching Netflix. Whatever it is that helps you when you’re dealing with tough situations. You deserve to do things that make you feel at least slightly better.
There are two different paths at this point and which one you end up going down depends entirely on your situation. You can either keep your wash out or you may have to rehome them for any number of reasons. Let’s talk about both options.
If You Can Keep Your Wash Out
If you can keep your wash out that’s a great thing! However, it doesn’t take away the pain of washing them out. People will think they’re “helping” by telling you that you’re lucky you get to keep them. That it’s not that big of a deal because you get to keep your dog and that’s all that matters. But they’re wrong. Even when you get to keep your dog washing them out is still absolutely gut wrenching. You shouldn’t ever be made to feel like it should hurt less because you get to keep him. That doesn’t make everything magically better.
Everyone copes with it differently and again I want to emphasize that there is no right or wrong way to deal with your feelings over washing out your dog.
The most important thing for me with Ashim was to keep training him. Even though he couldn’t work in public anymore he needed to have something to do. It’s going to be hard at first. You may feel like there’s no point if they can’t work or it may just rub you raw again. Find a sport or tricks or something to get involved in with your dog. Start doing something you can enjoy together. You can even train tasks to help you around the house. It’s never going to be the same as having a full public service dog but having an extra pair of paws around the house to help you as much as possible is still useful. It’s also good for your dog so they aren’t going from working to not doing anything cold turkey. For you training will help keep your mind busy.
If You Have to Rehome Your Wash Out
Rehoming any dog is hard. Having to rehome the dog that was supposed to become your service dog is even worse. Don’t let anyone say anything negative about it and don’t let them shame or talk down to you if you have to rehome your dog. It doesn’t matter what the situation is that makes it so you aren’t able to keep your wash out. At this point the most important thing to do is enjoy every second you have with them. If they came from a reputable breeder or rescue make sure you know their rehoming policies. Many times they require that you at least inform them if not turn the dog back over to them so they can place the dog in a new home.
Take your time finding them a new home if you can. Go through a vetting process of some sort (however you decide) and make sure that they’ll be ending up with someone who will love and care for them for the rest of their life. For some people it’s easier to place the dog with someone who’s willing to keep them updated and stay in touch for the life of the dog. For others it’s easier to give the dog to someone, make sure that it’s happy, and then try to move on. Either way is valid and there’s nothing wrong with going whichever direction you feel is best for you.
I’m going to say this one more time. Nobody is allowed to shame you or say anything negative to you about you having to rehome your dog. It’s a hard-enough situation as it is and they don’t get to judge you for it. If they do shut them down. You deserve better than that. You deserve to do what’s best for you and your dog without having to deal with other people’s negativity. Don’t beat yourself up over it either. None of this is your fault and you should combat any negative thoughts towards yourself that you have. Surround yourself with people who will remind you that you’re doing the right thing by rehoming your dog.
A Final Note
Washing a dog out of service dog training is the worst part of trying to owner train a service dog. It’s a risk every one of us accepts the day we bring home a prospect, whether you start with a young puppy from a breeder or an older dog from a shelter. Everyone that starts training a dog should know the risks of having to wash their dog out. They should also know how to recognize the signs that point to needing a behaviorist evaluation and potential wash out. Statistically most owner trainers will wash out a dog at some point in their journey. It never gets any easier and everyone copes with it differently. What matters is that you do what helps you, whether it’s something mentioned in this article or something else (as long as it’s healthy).