How to Get a Service Dog
Living with a disability is difficult, stressful, and sometimes scary if your condition triggers sudden changes in your physiology. Dogs have been helping people with their disabilities for decades, allowing them to gain autonomy and a sense of security. Their ability to connect and empathize with us, along with their capacity to be trained for all sorts of tasks, makes dogs exceptionally perfect at assisting us. Today, dogs help people with mobility issues, visual or hearing impairment, psychiatric disorders, autism spectrum disorders, and/or medical issues such as diabetes, seizures, migraines, etc.
If you’re considering a service dog to help you or a loved one, there are a few options to get one. Let’s examine each one of them.
Getting a fully trained service dog from an organization
The best way to get a service dog is to contact an organization specialized in training dogs for your specific condition. The trainers will have experience with your particular disability and will know how to best prepare the dog for you. They will also help you decide if a service dog is a good fit for you and explain any potential challenges to expect. When working with an organization, not only will they help you prepare before you get the dog, but they should also spend several days or weeks working with you once the dog is ready, teaching you how to work with the dog and care for your new companion. Once you take the dog home, the trainers should be in regular contact to help with the transition. It will take several months after the placement, for you and your new service dog to work seamlessly as a team.
The other advantage of working with an organization is that the service dogs they place have been screened for good health and temperament. Only the dogs with the right qualities will become service dogs. At Medical Mutts, for instance, the dogs are checked for dysplasia, heartworms, Lyme disease, etc. All are spayed or neutered, fully vaccinated, and come with a health certificate from the veterinarian. This is important as some of these conditions are rather common and could significantly reduce the life expectancy of a dog.
As the dogs go through the training program, they are constantly evaluated for their ability to work around all sorts of situations. When dogs go through adolescence, they can develop fears and anxieties that might impact their ability to cope with certain environments. Going out in public is challenging for most dogs. The dogs must be confident enough that they aren’t concerned about strangers, loud noises, different surfaces, distractions, etc. Not every dog is cut out for that.
But getting a fully trained service dog isn’t easy or cheap. Most organizations have a long waiting list, and it may take 1-5 years to get a service dog. Training service dogs is incredibly demanding in time and cost for any organization. Not to mention that on average, half the dogs get released from the program along the way, for behavior or health reasons. For those reasons, it’s difficult to provide enough dogs to meet the demand and funding is always a challenge. The cost of care and training of such dogs often brings the price tag around $15-25,000. Organizations with enough resources and community support to fundraise and cover their overheads, can provide dogs for much less and sometimes even for free. Often however, you’ll need to expect longer wait times as their waitlist is typically longer than those that require you to fully or partially fund the dog.
So how can people afford such dogs? Most families must gather resources and fundraise to get a service dog. With help from their community, their church, their coworkers, or clubs such as the Eagles Club, the Lions Club International, or the Elks Club, many will have to raise the funds they need to get a service dog.
A good resource for finding a service dog from a reputable organization is the Assistance Dogs International website. They are an accrediting bureau for non-profit service dog organizations.
Getting your dog trained by an organization
Another option in getting a service dog, is to contact an organization and get your dog trained by them. This service is commonly called “Board and Train” as your dog would be living at their location for a while. At Medical Mutts, board and train services are offered to dogs 9 months and older.
The advantage of such programs is that you can get a service dog much sooner, provided that you already have a qualified dog. It will take a minimum of 6 months of training for your dog to learn all the necessary behaviors to become your service dog. That training should include not only the behaviors specific to your situation, in other words all the tasks related to your disability, but your dog should also learn how to be well behaved in public. At Medical Mutts, dogs go through 3 levels of training and learn an average of 30 different behaviors by the time they are done.
But before being accepted into a Board and Train program, the dogs must first be assessed. Many dogs cannot be service dogs, no matter how much training they receive. If they are too anxious about going to different places and being around strangers, they will not be able to keep their focus on you. Not only will their ability to work be affected, but it’s also not fair to the dogs to force them into uncomfortable situations time and time again. Such dogs might still provide valuable help to you in your home, but they should not be expected to perform out in public. During the initial assessment, the trainer will determine how confident, social and trainable your dog is and will discuss your particular situation and needs. Based on that assessment, the trainer should help you set realistic goals.
When choosing a training program, it’s essential to ask about what training methods will be used. After all, this is your dog, and you have every right to make sure your dog is treated with respect and kindness. Don’t fall for trainers who use correction devices such as choke collars, prong collars or shock collars. Dog training is an unregulated profession, so many trainers might claim to use positive reinforcement, but also resort to harsher methods, especially behind closed doors. With a dog who needs to take initiative without hesitation, the use of punishment can affect their confidence and their performance. Not to mention the impact on the dogs’ wellbeing and on your relationship. When training service dogs (or any dog), old fashioned punishment-based methods of training are to be avoided.
The downside of Boarding and Training is that not all dogs will make it through the program. Some dogs may develop behavior issues along the way or might struggle with living in a kennel environment. When starting with such a program, it’s therefore important to plan in case your dog can’t complete the program. Can the dog still help you in your home? Will you be able to keep the dog and if not, do you have a friend or a relative willing to adopt the dog?
For information about what types of dogs have the potential to be trained as service dogs, click here.
Training your own service dog
If you already have a dog and have the interest and the ability to train your dog yourself, training your own service dog could be a great way for you to get the help that you need, while developing a stronger relationship with your beloved pet.
Here again, your dog will first need to have the right temperament to become a service dog. A service dog trainer should be able to assess your dog and let you know of your dog’s potential.
Dog training is harder than it seems, so don’t underestimate the learning curve that will inevitably come with this project. It’s very much like learning a sport, where little details can greatly influence the outcome. Learning from experienced service dog trainers will be important. I sometimes hear of people who try to learn from YouTube videos only. Service dog training is comparable to learning tennis at a competitive level. Videos might give you a few pointers, but you really need someone who can guide you and help you avoid some costly mistakes. Here again, it’s going to be really important to check what training method is used with any particular trainer. A source of reliable dog trainers is the CPDT website www.ccpdt.org. I would also highly recommend finding trainers who have worked in the service dog industry and are familiar with the standards, the laws and with the disability that you struggle with. At Medical Mutts, for instance, we have developed a service dog coaching program to help pet owners train their own dogs either through private sessions or group classes. The training can be done online, so our trainers are accessible from anywhere in the world. For more information about our training services, visit https://medicalmutts.org/train-your-own-service-dog/.
A big advantage in training your own service dog is that not you will learn to become a better handler to your dog, but you will also know how to train any potential successor dog that you might need. Before you get started though, you’ll need to assess how much time you can dedicate to the training, what physical challenges you might run into and if you need to look for help from a friend or a relative.
Depending on your disability, on your resources and on your interest in training, you have the option to get your own service dog, have your dog fully trained for you or train you own service dog. Let us know if there is any way that we can help you.
Jennifer Cattet Ph.D.
Jennifer Cattet Ph.D. is an author, researcher, dog trainer, consultant, and Executive Director of Medical Mutts, a non-profit organization specialized in the training of medical alert dogs for conditions such as seizures, diabetes, psychiatric disorders, etc.