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Dogs in Vests: Owner-Raised and Trained Service Dogs

Analysis by Dr. Karen Shaw Becker

Story at-a-glance -

  • Miriam Richard and Valerie Fry are the combined force behind a brilliant effort, Dogs in Vests
  • The goal of Dogs in Vests is to empower individuals and families to raise, train and partner with their own service dogs
  • Valerie is a professional positive reinforcement dog trainer, Miriam has a son who must eat a very specific and limited diet, and Stella is the dog they’ve trained to alert on forbidden foods and ingredients
  • Almost any puppy can be raised and trained by a pet parent to become a service dog; this can be a huge benefit to families who can’t afford either the cost or wait time for a dog trained by an outside organization
  • Owner-trained service dogs, because they are truly family pets who also have a job to do, enjoy the best of all possible worlds

Today I’m talking with two very special guests, Miriam Richard and Valerie Fry, creators of a fantastic effort called Dogs in Vests, along with a book, “Dogs in Vests: Empowering Narratives of Families Raising, Training, and Partnering with Service Animals.”

Stella: The Inspiration for Dogs in Vests

The project began two years ago when Miriam’s young son was diagnosed with a very painful condition, Crohn’s disease. Right around the time of his diagnosis, coincidentally, the family won their dog Stella at a charity auction.

Ultimately, Miriam was introduced to Valerie, a professional dog trainer, who explained she could scent-train Stella to help Miriam’s son avoid foods that might trigger a flare-up of his Crohn’s disease. Valerie has been training service dogs for about 15 years to assist people with seizures, diabetes and other chronic conditions.

Some of the dogs Valerie trains are rescues with behavior issues. Scent training, sometimes called K9 nose work, helps the dogs build confidence and gives them something to stimulate their minds without having to interact too much outside their homes or in environments that feel threatening to them.

For the first few months Stella was with the Richard family, Miriam worked with her on basic obedience commands. When she was about 7 months old, Valerie was able to begin scent training with her.

Stella Alerts on Foods the Richard Children Must Not Eat

Miriam’s son must follow a specific diet that limits all grains and starches, because these ingredients feed bad gut bacteria and result in ulcers in Crohn’s patients.

There are an incredible number of ingredients he must avoid, but fortunately, Miriam’s background as a gymnast with a master’s degree in physical therapy and certification from the Institute for Integrative Nutrition was tremendously helpful in sorting it all out. Her goal was to keep her son’s Crohn’s in check and keep him out of the hospital.

The goal for Stella was to learn to identify hidden grains and starches in food so she could alert on foods to avoid. This proved to be more challenging than you might think, because much of the dog’s detection work is done in restaurants with cooked food. Stella had to be trained to sniff the food without taking it off the plate. She also had to learn, for example, to give the all clear on the eggs on one side of the plate, but alert on the potatoes on the other side of the same plate.

“It took quite a while for Stella to understand that,” Valerie explains. “I brought in many colleagues to observe her and [ensure] we weren’t leading her in any direction, and that she was finding what it appeared she was finding. She was.”

Stella’s alert when she sniffs out starches is a paw up. She’s also trained to alert Miriam’s daughter to avoid raw egg whites with a bow. She has an “all clear” alert as well, which is to look straight ahead. (Be sure to watch the video above to see Stella demonstrate her scenting skills and alerts.)

There are dogs who sniff out gluten, oncoming seizures, low blood insulin levels and more. I think perhaps this is just the tip of the iceberg in terms of what types of things dogs can be trained to identify. Miriam agreed, and mentioned that dogs are also being trained to sniff out all forms of peanuts in food to alert people with life-threatening allergies.

She also points out that since scenting service dogs must be allowed in restaurants, and while there are also presented with plates of food to sniff, there’s a bit of a learning curve for restaurant staff and other patrons. Hopefully, wider acceptance by the general public will come with time and familiarity. 

Most Puppies Can Be Trained by Their Owners To Be Service Dogs

One of the goals of Dogs in Vests is to raise awareness about owner-trained service dogs. Miriam wanted to capture what she was able to do with Stella as a model for other potential owners. The Richards also do community outreach to help raise money for dogs for other families through the sale of the book. There’s even a documentary in the works.

I asked Valerie if she believes most puppies have the innate ability to develop into scenting dogs. For example, if someone set a goal for an 8-week-old puppy, could he or she become scent trained to Stella’s level?

“I honestly do think most can,” she replied. “It’s really about that first imprinting phase, when the puppies are with mom and they’re starting to walk on the ground. I’ve worked with families and individuals who are training their own dogs.

My goal is to empower families to go through this process themselves, because most don’t have thousands of dollars to pay for a service dog, and the wait time for dogs from nonprofit organizations can be years. That can be overwhelming for many people.”

All Service Dogs Should Love Their Jobs

One of the wonderful benefits of owner-trained service dogs is that unlike organizations that train dogs and fail many of them out of the training for various reasons, pet parents stick with it with their own dogs. They’re already bonded with their pets, so they see the training through with them.

“I personally believe any dog is capable of it,” says Valerie. “I think it’s the person and what they’re willing to put into that dog. That being said, I think there are a lot of dogs who might have some fear issues that do not want to be there.”

In other words, the dog has to want to participate. As Valerie explained to Miriam during Stella’s training, when Stella barked at another dog who took her treat and Miriam was concerned, “It’s okay to let her be a dog. You can’t expect her not to be a dog!” Another thing Valerie allows is petting while the service dog is working.

“Why would a dog work for you if it’s not fun or enjoyable?” Valerie asks. We don’t want them begging for attention, of course, but it someone asks to pet a dog, she lets the dog know it’s okay to receive petting. The dog enjoys the attention and as a result, looks forward to future outings.

“Otherwise,” says Valerie, “the dog might think, ‘Why would I want to be stuck with you and ignored all day except when you call for me?’

Valerie is also a mentor-trainer for Victoria Stilwell Academy, ABC and others. Her first certification was from the Karen Pryor Academy.

“I’m a positive reinforcement trainer,” she says. “I believe these dogs need to love their jobs. All my service dogs definitely love their jobs. They want to be there, and that makes all the difference.”

In fact, one day Miriam had Stella in a mall and a security officer approached and asked if Stella was a service dog. Stella was wearing her red vest that clearly states she’s a service dog. Miriam told the man that yes, Stella is a service dog and the vest means she’s working. “Well, it looks like she’s having too much fun,” the security officer said, “so I thought she might not be!”

Where to Learn More About Dogs in Vests

I admire and respect Valerie’s positive reinforcement training approach. She uses zero aversive training techniques because she doesn’t believe they’re necessary or helpful. I’m in 100 percent agreement. We can learn through love or we can learn through fear, but no living soul would ever pick fear, given the choice.

Another thing I love about the Dogs in Vests project is that these dogs have a job to do. So many dogs these days are incredibly bored. These dogs have the best of all possible worlds. I’m really inspired by the work Valerie and Miriam are doing. I also appreciate that they’re sharing it with the world. They’re presenting a brand new concept for raising and training service dogs. In many ways it’s an ideal vision of the ultimate pet-loving home.

The book I mentioned earlier, “Dogs in Vests: Empowering Narratives of Families Raising, Training, and Partnering with Service Animals,” is available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble and other major book sellers. Several authors contributed to the book so readers can understand what it feels like to walk through the process from a variety of different perspectives.

All proceeds from the book after printing costs go toward finding dogs to train and the training itself. You can also visit the group’s website at Dogs in Vests, as well as on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter.