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An Interview with Sheri Soltes, Texas Hearing and Service Dogs

Sheri Soltes is the Founder and President of Texas Hearing and Service Dogs. She pioneered positive training in the assistance dog industry. Recently, we spoke to her about her new training facility and her plans for the future.

What led you to found Texas Hearing and Service Dogs?

Sheri Soltes

While I was still a trial lawyer in Houston in the 1980s, I stumbled on a magazine article about shelter dogs being trained as assistance dogs. I wanted to do something that would make a difference, and this caught my interest. The dogs get a second chance, and the people get a piece of assistive technology that they can hug. I didn't know anything about dogs (I'm a cat person, really), but nobody was training assistance dogs in the Southwest. So I sent out a survey to organizations that served the hearing impaired in Houston, and 75% of the respondents said they would be interested in working with an assistance dog. So I founded Texas Hearing and Service Dogs in 1988, and made it my full-time work in 1991.

All the dogs in your program are clicker trained. How did you learn about operant conditioning and positive reinforcement?

We began with traditional dog training methods. Then one day I was watching TV and saw a show that compared training dolphins to training dogs. It struck me that we could learn a lot from marine mammal trainers. I live in Austin, which is not far from SeaWorld San Antonio, so I called them and asked for help. The trainers there were hospitable and generous with their time; it was a new and interesting idea for them to apply operant conditioning to training assistance dogs. I know we could not be doing the work we do without the marine animal training legacy.

How is training assistance dogs unique?

Unlike most training, in our work the trainers change. Dogs work with trainers in our facility and then are placed with recipients who have significant physical differences. They may be in a wheelchair, or not be able to use their hands, or hear. And yet with operant conditioning, we can still produce behavior modification. Because of the methodology, we get consistent productive results with handlers of varying physical abilities.

How many dogs have you placed?

We have placed approximately 500 dogs to date. We currently place about a dozen a year, but with our new training facility and kennels, we hope to expand that to about 50 dogs a year.

Where do your dogs come from?

Every dog we've trained and placed was a shelter dog. All were chosen for their temperament. The dogs we choose need to be comfortable in a variety of public situations, people oriented, not aggressive to people or other animals and not too submissive. They must be healthy and the right size, and have good hips, of course. If they meet those criteria, we can turn them into assistance dogs through positive training.

Are dogs ever returned to you after placement?

Very rarely; our success rate is very, very high. The people getting these dogs learn enough about operant conditioning to become trainers themselves.

How long do you train most dogs before placing them?

Our training curriculum begins with 18 weeks of training at our facility. The person who is to receive the dog then comes to our facility for three days of training and to get to know their dog. After they take their dog home, we do 13 weeks of in-home training, with once-a-week visits by a staff member, practice working in public places, and homework assignments. We make it very clear to the recipients that no aversives are needed, nor are they permitted, to train our dogs. The recipients are reinforced by the success they have with the dogs. One of our graduates from our hearing dog program said, "I don't know how they do it, but Texas Hearing and Service Dogs teaches these dogs how to learn."

How do your volunteers respond to aversive-free training?

Texas Hearing and Service Dogs does not permit the use of any aversives by our trainers, volunteers, or recipients. We get many requests from people to work and volunteer from us, and we make it clear that we only use positive reinforcement in our training. We also emphasize that to our recipients throughout the training process. The recipients are so pleased with how the dogs work for them that they typically embrace this methodology right away.

Do you have a favorite placement story?

We have a lot of wonderful stories on our website, www.servicedogs.org. The story of Chris McAllister and his service dog Blue, a border collie/Australian shepherd mix, is just one. Two weeks after Chris brought him home, Blue rescued him by finding help when Chris's wheelchair overturned in the woods. Service dog Jake, a golden retriever/husky mix, who served on a jury with graduate Andy Roca, is another story of how our dogs work well in any public setting. Another of our service dog teams, Misty O'Neal and Nellie, will present with me at ClickerExpo. They will demonstrate service dog behaviors and Misty, who lives with muscular dystrophy, will share how Nellie has changed her life.

Is positive training of assistance dogs widely accepted?

The industry has mixed acceptance of operant conditioning for assistance dogs. More and more groups, however, are switching over from traditional training, or are on the road to becoming 100% positive. At this point, it is probably 50/50. It will take time, and new people coming into the field who start out training this way.

What are your goals for the future of Texas Hearing and Service Dogs?

We would like to reduce the waiting time for a dog. It's now about a year and half for our dogs, although the industry average is 3-5 years. We would like to expand in order to serve the entire state of Texas, and some day offer nationwide service. With our new training center, we will become far more interactive with the community. Tourists and school groups will be able to visit. We plan to offer an after-school Training Apprentice program for children, so that they can apply these ideas to other areas of their lives, based on Humans and Animals Learning Together (HALT). We want to help people, as well as dogs, modify behavior with positives.

About the author
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Gale Pryor is a writer and editor at Pen and Press, an editorial services and consulting company. Her writing credits include Parenting Magazine, Mothering Magazine, Teaching Dogs, National Public Radio, and two bestselling books.

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