I have exciting news: I graduated from Dartmouth!! Well, technically my girl did, but I attended graduation and walked across the stage with her – that counts, right? (and I’m pretty sure my attendance record in classes was better than some Dartmouth students’)
Although I didn’t wear a gown (it would have been too hot in the New Hampshire summer sun and humidity), I did get to wear a special graduation cap made just for dogs. It was decorated beautifully by my girl’s girlfriend, and my girl decorated her own cap to match.
I wasn’t a huge fan of wearing my graduation cap, but I tolerated it because my girl put a lot of time into associating my cap with positive things like yummy treats and fetch. Although humans can wear a graduation cap without much fuss, you definitely don’t want to wait until the day of graduation to put on your pup’s graduation cap! Even seasoned Service Dogs like me (who are used to a lot of weird stuff) will find it to be a super funky experience if they’re not used to wearing hats. My girl got my graduation cap in the fall (for a June graduation) and started putting it on me right away. If you’re doing this with your pup, you’ll want to start with super short sessions — just on, treat and praise, immediately off — at first and gradually build up the time that your pup wears it. Make sure to create positive associations with wearing the cap by offering high-value treat, lots of praise, xylitol-free peanut butter on a spoon, or whatever makes your pup happy (you can also use this technique for any kind of new gear for your dog, like head collars). Even with all that conditioning, I wasn’t super thrilled about wearing my graduation cap (although the photos were pretty gosh darn cute, if I do say so myself).
(For anyone wondering, I got my graduation cap from Etsy, and it held up really well over time but did slip around quite a bit while I was walking. To be fair, my girl’s human graduation cap also slid around. Pro tip: use bobby pins! We learned that too late for this graduation, but at least we’re prepared for next time.)
I have a secret to share: I’m not perfect, even after three years as a Service Dog. Training, after all, is a lifelong process. I have things I’m working on, and one of those things is applause. I get super jazzed about applause — the humans are excited, so I should be excited, too, right? If the applause goes on long enough, sometimes I’ll even bark, which is not acceptable for a Service Dog to do since Service Dogs cannot be disruptive (so you can see why my girl and I are working so hard on this behaviour). Although my girl needs me, she didn’t want to bring me to graduation if I was going to be disruptive (she had faith that I’d be fine, though). Luckily, the day before graduation had a ceremony called Class Day, which included a lot of applause, and since it took place right after graduation rehearsal, it was the perfect opportunity for a test run. If I couldn’t handle it, my girl was prepared to leave Class Day and had already made arrangements for me to stay with a friend throughout the graduation ceremony.
But guess what: I was perfect! I acted like an old pro — because I am an old pro! I heeled beautifully during graduation rehearsal, and I was quiet and settled throughout the entirety of Class Day. But there was a “fun” twist: a girl decided to bring her marginally-trained pet dog to graduation rehearsal and Class Day, and she ended up having to drag it away partway through Class Day. Part of the reason is that her dog had noticed me and was whining and wiggling to get to me, but even at graduation rehearsal, it was way too excited to have any self-control — seeing another dog was just the cherry on top of an already overstimulation situation. Luckily, the girl at least removed her dog instead of continually disrupting Class Day with her dog’s behaviour, but while she was there, it was still disruptive to everyone sitting around her (I, for the record, completely ignored the dog and didn’t even look at it — that’s what a real Service Dog does!). So pro tip: if you have not put in the time and effort to train your dog to handle overstimulating environments, just leave it at home!! Even if it is a Service Dog in training (which this dog wasn’t, based on its and its handler’s behaviour), slowly work up to super exciting environments — don’t just throw them into intense environments with little preparation and expect them to behave. Always try to set your dog up for success!
Although I was perfect at Class Day, my girl still created a backup plan — Service Dogs aren’t robots, after all, and can have off days (although having an off day on graduation would have been such an unfortunate coincidence). A friend was willing to take me partway through the ceremony if need be and keep me until my girl was finished with graduation. Because the Dartmouth graduation ceremony is so long, graduates are allowed to get up to acquire water or go to the bathroom (because we were in the direct sun throughout graduation, my girl and I actually got up so that I could lie in the shade and cool off for a bit) — so it wouldn’t have been a big deal for my girl to discreetly get up and hand me off to a waiting friend. Luckily, we never needed to rely on that because I was perfect! Three years of training set me up for success, and I was a very good girl with all the commotion and excitement.
Another way that I was set up for success was being thoroughly exercised on the morning of graduation itself. As the saying goes, a tired dog is a well-behaved dog! My girl and I were reminded of this during Lavender Graduation (the small LGBT+ community graduation). I didn’t have adequate exercise before Lavender Grad, so I was super riled up by all the applause and cheering (which was a lot, because the LGBT+ community is very supportive of one another). And unfortunately, my girl couldn’t remove me from the situation because it was storming and the ceremony was an outdoor tent — it was quite an embarrassing situation for both of us! My girl felt really bad about showcasing bad Service Dog behaviour in front of a whole community, especially because she works hard to show off my good behaviour because Dartmouth has an epidemic of people bringing their untrained ESAs where they’re not supposed to. Afterward, every time we ran into someone from Lavender Grad, we profusely apologized and tried to educate on proper Service Dog behaviour (by saying that my barking and excitement were not acceptable at all).
So, because of this, my girl was determined to wear me out before graduation. I played a long game of fetch to get all of my wiggles out — we didn’t want any wiggles left so that it wouldn’t be a challenge to settle during the 3+ hours of graduation. Indeed, I was able to chill throughout the whole ceremony — which was particularly important because I was in the front row, so any excessive movement from me would’ve been highly distracting )and yes, it was a lot of pressure being the star of graduation, but a princess like me knows how to look good for the cameras, obviously!).Sitting in the hot sun for 3+ hours certainly requires a little bit of forethought if you’re a human graduate (e.g. water bottle, sunscreen), but it requires double the forethought when you’re also bringing a furry toddler with you to the ceremony (aka me, the cutest furry toddler ever!) — actually, it requires more like triple the forethought because if you have a Service Dog, then you also have a disability (or a disabling chronic illness) and you have to plan ahead for all the challenges and potential problems associated with that. Luckily, Dartmouth has a policy (probably because of the super long ceremony) that graduates can bring anything (within reason) with them to graduation, and my girl and I took full advantage of that policy! My girl brought along a huge bottle of water for the both of us, as well as a purse that held a collapsible water bowl, enough kibble for my breakfast and lunch, my gentle leader (another safety net to ensure flawless behaviour), sunscreen, sunglasses (which my girl wore), and my girl’s phone. I, of course, carried emergency info, meds, and my girl’s ID like I always do. Between the two of us, we were set to cover any problem that might come up – whether it was her light sensitivity, my behaviour, or even just the UV index.
I opted to wear just my black Y-front harness (no cape) to look sleek for all the graduation photos. Fun fact of the day, though: did you know that if you wear 5-inch heels, suddenly your counterbalance handle becomes 5 inches too short? Yeah, that thought did not occur to my girl beforehand, whoops! Luckily, though, we didn’t have to do much standing, and since momentum pulling gives my girl balance while we’re walking, the short counterbalance handle ended up not being a big deal. But we definitely won’t make that mistake next time!
I was a good girl throughout the ceremony, and most importantly, I showcased exactly how a trained Service Dog should behave when I walked across the stage with my girl — cool, calm, and collected and 100% focused on my job, not soliciting attention from the people around us. I hope it showed the Dartmouth community that a Service Dog is the product of hundreds of hours of training and hard work (read: blood, sweat, and tears), and I can only hope that my good behaviour serves as a reminder to why task-trained Service Dogs like me are allowed to accompany their handlers throughout campus but untrained ESAs are not.
I did have one hiccup in my behaviour: as I was walking through the audience with my girl in a procession of the graduates, a small pet dog suddenly burst out of the crowd to try to get to me, and it barked at me loudly. I was startled (so was my girl), especially since the dog was so close to me, and I let out a bark in response. My girl corrected me, and I went back to behaving as expected — these things happen sometimes (although why did that person have a small dog in a big crowd and why weren’t they afraid that someone would step on their dog?).
All the hustle and excitement of graduation took a toll on my girl, and even I was tired from all the stimulation — we both napped for hours afterward, before eventually joining some visiting family members for post-graduation festivities (which included swimming in a pond and a lot of fetch for me!).Graduation was the culmination of my girl’s undergraduate academic endeavours, and it was also the culmination of three years and over 1000 hours of Service Dog training for me. I think it’s safe to say that we both learned a lot both in and out of the classroom, as well as from each other. It wasn’t always an easy journey and graduation for either of us was never a guarantee (not all dogs are cut out to be Service Dogs, and my girl’s physical and mental health were not wholly predictable), but we managed to do it together as a team and create many memories along the way. Who knew we could achieve so much together?
Right now, we’re back home in California catching up on some highly needed R&R, and I’m enjoying all the fetch I get to play with both my girl and her mom. But what’s next for us after this? You’ll just have to wait and see!
Love and puppy kisses,
Service Dog team etiquette (particularly apropos after this post!)
Don’t distract Service Dogs
Confused? See my terms and abbreviations