For most of an average day, Tilly, a Chihuahua cross-breed owned by a CSU student, acts like any dog. She can get skittish with loud noises, trusts unconditionally and begs for scraps at mealtime.
But when Ashlee Shelly, a senior animal science major and Tilly’s owner, puts the dog into her service vest, Tilly knows it’s work time.
“You can tell that her whole demeanor just goes calm,” Shelly said.
Shelly adopted Tilly her senior year of high school and has been training her as a service dog for two years.
“She originally came from a shelter in south central LA,” Shelly said. “She ended up being brought up to my hometown, which is about two hours outside of LA.”
There are roughly 10,000 people who use dogs for assistance in the US and Canada, and some of those 10,000 are seen around the CSU campus.
Assistance dogs can come from breeding programs, with volunteer puppy raisers caring for them until they are old enough to start formal training, or in some cases the dogs are rescued from animal shelters.
Training a service dog requires countless hours of work; Shelly said she has spent 100 plus hours working with Tilly. Training a shelter dog can be particularly challenging because they aren’t bred to be service dogs, Shelly said.
Tilly was very skittish at first about loud noises, but learned to be comfortable with Shelly.
“Shelter dogs are amazing with the trust that they give and the people that adopt them and so she’ll listen to me through thick and thin. A lot of shelter dogs just run off but she’s learned to trust me,” Shelly said.
People train and use assistance dogs for many different purposes, not just for helping those with visual impairments.
According to Assistance Dogs International, there are three types of Assistance Dogs: Guide dogs for the blind and the visually impaired, hearing dogs for the deaf and hard of hearing and service dogs for people with disabilities other than those related to vision or hearing.
Training a service dog requires takes classes and getting the dog certified.
“We went through one of the trainers through PetCo,” Shelly said. “We did one course of that.”
The next step was to go through a program presented by the American Kennel Club (AKC) called the Canine Good Citizens (CGC) program.
The AKC’s CGC Program is designed to recognize dogs that have good manners at home and in the community, according to the AKC website.
Some therapy dog groups require passing the CGC test as a prerequisite.
All dogs who pass the 10 step CGC test may receive a certificate from the American Kennel Club.
“We went through that class, registered and went through it last January. And then once you pass that class then you send your certificate to the AKC,” Shelly said. “And so she’s a registered AKC canine good citizen.”
But not all of Tilly’s life is spent training to be an assistance dog. She lives in a house with Shelly and her three roommates.
According to Shelly, Tilly is quite the beggar. “Between the four of us, there is always free food for Tilly.”
For now Tilly is still in training, and is always being taught new things.
“Right now she’s involved with some therapy stuff,” Shelly said. “And we’re trying to get in with a couple of the elderly homes around town, to put in hours.”