All our dogs are special; no doubt about that. Dogs can learn to do all kinds of things, from bring us our slippers to open a door. Even pooches without service dog training have been known to rescue people in the snow, wake up families in a fire, and get drowning kids out of lakes.
Many dogs can be trained to be service dogs. These amazing canines do everything from help disabled people take off their shoes to assist people in crossing the street. Some dogs are even capable of dialing 911 with a special phone in the event their owner has an emergency.
Do you think your dog might be service dog material? Are you interested in becoming part of the network of people who do service dog training? It's a tough job, but few things are more rewarding than having your own service dog.
What Is a Service Dog?
This is the first big questions, and we need to distinguish between service dogs and therapy dogs. They're both valuable, but they are also distinct.
The term “service animal” is defined by regulations released by the Department of Justice. According to their rules, only dogs and miniature horses are recognized service animals.
People may have all kinds of emotional support animals, but those are not true service animals according to recognized legal definitions.
To meet the qualifications, a dog must:
What Is a Therapy Dog?
Therapy dogs are meant to work with groups of people. Therapy dogs are bring people comfort and companionship, particularly in schools or hospitals.
Therapy dogs and service dogs need different temperaments. Therapy dogs have excellent social abilities. They're happy to be touched, very outgoing and friendly, and love to be squeezed and hugged.
A service dog needs to be utterly loyal to its owner and is often hand-picked to get along with the person it will serve and succeed in service dog training. These dogs have to be focused, attentive, and able to avoid reacting to other people.
Psychiatric Service Dog vs Therapy Dog
Because people with a Psychiatric Service Dog (PSD) don't have a disability that is immediately identifiable, like blindness, it can be hard to tell a PSD from a therapy dog. However, they are different.
A PSD has gone through service dog training to help people with anxiety, PTSD, or depression, and they do very specific trained tasks for one individual. They must be individually trained to do that task, and the task must be a quantifiable, physical task: usually providing grounding, guarding, or otherwise assisting the person so they understand that everything is ok.
All these helpful dogs are highly valuable: but they require different temperaments and different training!
Service Dog Rules
Obviously, service dogs can only be helpful if they can go everywhere with their owner. To deal with this, Department of Justice's regulations lay out how the law interprets the Americans with Disabilities Act in regard to service dogs. Here are some of the rules regarding dogs that have gone through service dog training:
Service dogs can go anywhere that the general permitted to go. This means all public areas and any place the human must go, like a hospital waiting room, but not places where the general public wouldn't be allowed in, like an operating theatre.
There are so many therapy animals around these days that some people are getting frustrated. Airlines are concerned, for example, with whether someone's “therapy turkey” really has to be taken on board.
When it comes to service animals, there is no question. These highly trained dogs know how to behave in public. Because of this, if a service dog shows up there are only two questions a person may ask about them:
- 1Is the dog required because of a disability?
- 2What work or task does the dog perform?
Allergies and Fear
Some people are afraid of dogs, and we need to acknowledge that this is ok. There are dogs out there in the world who haven't been trained or have been abused. Some of these dogs bite and threaten people, and it's totally legitimate for a person traumatized by a dog to be frightened.
Some people are allergic to dogs. This is also a serious issue, and airlines in particular are trying to work out the kinks when it comes to accommodating service dogs and people with allergies.
But neither allergies nor fear are a legitimate reason for anyone to deny access or service to someone with a true service dog. Instead, they need to find a way to accommodate both the allergy sufferer and the service dog.
A service dog has to be kept under control. If a service dog isn't housebroken, or if it goes out of control and the owner/handler doesn't bring it immediately back under control, the person can be asked to remove their animal.
The laws for people with service dogs supersede health codes. This means that even if a restaurant doesn't allow animals in its dining room normally, they must allow service dogs. Naturally, they will not allow the dog into the kitchen or other private areas.
Hotels and restaurants or other establishments can't charge a special fee for service animals. Even if a hotel normally has a deposit for those who bring along a pet, they have to waive it when it comes to service animals. However, should a service animal destroy something, the owner is financially liable.
What Can Service Dogs Do?
What can't they do! Dogs are amazing animals, and we really haven't reached the limit of our understanding about what they're capable of with a bit of service dog training. Here are just some of the things service dogs do:
How to Register a Service Dog
Although the ADA specifically forbids someone from asking anything other than the two questions listed above, it's always a good idea to get your dog officially registered. Of course you can just stand on your rights, which allow you to take your service dog anywhere so long as you verbally affirm that they are a real service dog. But life, and everything else, will go more smoothly if you're registered.
The first step is to see if you qualify to get service dog training for your dog. You must have at least one life-task that you can't perform without some help. Any of these conditions qualify you to have a service dog if the condition is server enough that you need help with essential tasks:
Your dog has to have service dog training to help you with a task. It isn't enough that your dog just kind of “know how” to help you. You or someone else needs to train them specifically to do something. Your dog can be trained to do tasks in any of the following areas:
Do you and your dog qualify? Great! You can get your dog registered with a number of national registry organizations that will provide you with the certificate and records you need to ensure your dog can go everywhere with you without hassle. Most will provide you with a service dog ID card as well as patches you can sew or attach to your dogs collar or harness.
Getting Service Dog Training
How Long Does it Take?
Proper service dog taking usually takes between six months and year, depending on the dog and the tasks the dog needs to learn. Of course if you get classes with a professional trainer, it might happen much more quickly.
One of the biggest challenges for service dog training is helping them learn to sit quietly and be obedient in public, even when lots of things are going on around them. This is something you can work on them with even if you hire a trainer to help them learn a specific task.
Service Dog Training Steps
The first and most important thing is that your dog be able to obey basic commands like sit, stay, and down. Your dog also needs to reliably come whenever you call him, and he must be very socially adept.
This doesn't mean your dog has to be friends with every person he sees. On the contrary, that would probably make him a bad service dog! He needs to be focused on you, not on other people. But here's what he needs to be trained out of:
Disability Related Tasks
Once your dog has mastered the basics reliably, your next step is to make sure she's able to perform a task that helps you or someone else get through basic life. Remember: no one is allowed to ask a disabled person what their disability is, but they are permitted to ask what service dog training has specifically taught your dog to do.
Your dog has to specifically work one-on-one with you or someone else to do something. Your dog can't just do “natural” dog things in order to qualify as a service dog, even though those things might help you.
Lots of dogs lick or nose people to comfort them. Lots of them act protective when their owner is vulnerable or bark to alert people of danger. None of those things qualifies as a service dog job. Your dog needs to be able to do a physical thing whenever they get a command or cue, and it has to be something a disabled person needs help to accomplish.
Table of what qualifies and doesn't:
Fetch the paper
Ground a person during a flashback
Distract by initiating a game
Bark to alert of low glucose levels
Bark because an owner fell down
Alert owner to a hearing alert
Bark because someone rang the doorbell
Can I Do It Myself?
Yes, but if you don't have any experience, it might be difficult, especially if you're training your dog to help you. Additionally, having a certified trainer gives you more legitimacy if anyone challenges you about whether you really have a service dog.
If you need a PSD, then it's a good idea to train the dog yourself, provided you have guidance from a professional if you don't already know what you're doing. That's because effective PSDs need a special bond with their owners.
Should I Send My Dog Away?
No! Not if you want your dog to be your service dog. You need to be training with your dog so you know what she knows. It's also really important for your dog to know what your “baseline” is so she can alert or help you when you deviate from baseline.
How Much Will It Cost?
The cost for service dog training is about the same whether you get a shelter dog or a service dog from a breeder. The total cost will be somewhere between $5,000 and $6,000. Even though a shelter dog is less expensive at the beginning, there are usually more vet bills and training expenses in the end.
How Long Does It Take?
Service dog training can take anywhere from one to two years, depending on the dog and the task. That's because your dog needs to be good at being out in public and behaving and also good at disability work. All dogs are different, as are all trainers, so your mileage may vary.
Does My Dog Really Need Public Access Training?
Yes! For one thing, you and your dog represent the entire service dog world whenever you step out together in public. If people have a bad experience with your dog, they're likely to avoid helping someone else with a service dog next time.
There's another, more personal reason you should watch out. You and your service dog are protected by law; but only as long as your dog behaves. If she gets out of control, a business or service is within their rights to exclude your animal.
When Should I Throw in the Towel?
If you're trying to train your dog and it's just not taking, how do you know when you need to just keep pressing on and when you need to just give up? The important thing is what's best for your dog. You can always keep the dog as a beloved pet, and he'll probably continue to help you in all kinds of ways.
But if your dog just can't get past his aggression, or if he seems nervous and unhappy when he's working, then there's a good chance he won't work out as a service dog. Talk with a professional to find out what they think before you make a final decision.
Choosing a Dog
Choosing a service dog is a life-changing step. Remember: you're not choosing a pet! You don't necessarily want the cutest pup or the one that wants to lick everyone. It doesn't matter which breed you always wanted as a child or the one you think is most handsome. What you need is a dog that can work and that you can trust in public.
Theoretically, nearly any dog breed will have individuals in it who can be trained as service dogs. That said, some breeds are more suited for certain task. Your first step is to think about what you want your dog to do for you.
Once you know what you need, you can think about sizes. If you need a dog to help you with balance or to lead you around, you won't want a tiny dog. If you need a dog to alert you to a physical problem or fetch things for you, and you live in a small apartment, a smaller breed will work well for you.
Retriever dogs, for example, love to work for people because that's what they were bred to do. Guard dogs are reliable and loyal: but they demand a strong and consistent handler. Hounds and terriers were born to chase and run. They can be very independent; and sometimes that's what you need. Toy breeds are little love sponges. They will be very focused on you, but they may need more work to learn a task.
Depending on your level of disability, you may not be able to match the energy level of some dogs. If you have a friend or family member who can help you exercise your dog, then this isn't an issue. If not, you'll want a dog with lower energy. On the other hand, if you love to get out into the mountains and go running, you will want a high-energy dog to match your pace.
Breeds with low, medium, and high energy levels
Cavalier King Charles Spaniel
Bernese Mountain Dog
How much or how little do you want to groom your dog? For some people, grooming is a helpful therapeutic activity. For others, it's a difficult physical task they cannot perform. You also need to consider the dog hair around the house and how much you are able (and willing!) to put up with. The dog's coat isn't just about you, though. If you live in extremely hot or cold places, you'll need a dog that can deal with your climate.
Some dogs are much better for people with allergies than others. If you or a family member living with you is allergic to dogs, look into some of the hypoallergenic breeds that are available.
Puppy or Adult?
If you get a puppy, you get to control all the experiences he has for the most part, You can be sure your dog doesn't come with any unexpected emotional baggage that will hit you just when you're least ready for it.
Puppies are also easiest to train for certain socialization and housebreaking behaviors. If an adult do hasn't already learned those things, it will be harder for him. However, you'll also have to deal with puppy problems, like chewing, high energy levels, and a bit of puppy mischief.
If you choose to get a puppy from a breeder, go with a reputable breeder who specifically breeds dogs for service jobs. As they get to know the puppies in the first few weeks of life, they'll be able to help you match with a pup that fits your temperament and requirements.
Be careful of puppy mills. These unscrupulous breeders are only in it for the money. They often breed dogs in conditions that are hard on the mothers and produce unstable pups. They don't do genetic testing, so their dogs may be susceptible to a variety of diseases. It doesn't pay to save a few bucks and get a puppy with lots of problems (or encourage these breeders to keep abusing dogs!)
What Makes a Good Service Dog?
Service dogs should have certain qualities, but some of these are on a bit of a spectrum. All service dogs need to be intelligent, for example, but not every service dog needs the same level of intelligence, and some very intelligent dogs may be bored by service work.
There are certain qualities that automatically disqualify a dog from service work. You can narrow down your search by looking for dogs that don't suffer from any of these:
It's a good idea to find out if your dog is prone to these before you put in a lot of time, effort, love, training, and money to get a service dog ready to work with you. Some breeds are particularly prone to certain illnesses, so research your breed before you buy.
If your pup has issues with balance, has hip or elbow dysplasia, gets back pain, or has trouble pushing or pulling, they are going to have issues helping you in service tasks. Working as a service dog is hard. The dog has to go where you go and be able to sit or lie down on hard floors a lot of the day.
Too Big or Small
If you weigh 200 pounds, your 30-pound service dog simply cannot help you balance. If you need a dog to open drawers for you, a tiny terrier who can't even reach the drawer is not the dog for you. Make sure your dog fits the size requirements.
Vision or Hearing Problems
It should go without saying that all service dogs need to be able to see and hear what's going on around them. They need to be able to protect and respond to their owner, and they need to be aware of the environment and alert their owner to problems or concerns.
Some dogs are just too fearful to work as service dogs. If the dog is too afraid to take treats, cringes from people, growls fearfully when approached, or spends all their time panting when there's nothing really going on, he's too timid to do the job.
On the opposite side of the spectrum are dogs that react to every little thing, and especially those who react with aggression. If the dog is always snarling at other dogs or acting aggressively towards cats, kids, or cars, that dog just isn't cut out for the service dog life.
Being a working dog is hard, and dogs who serve need to be in good shape. A dog that's overweight will struggle to do the right tasks safely. Also, an overweight dog is more likely to suffer other health issues later.
Some dogs are so crazed for food, toys, games, or pats that they just can't focus on the task at hand. Some are so energetic that they struggle to settle down and concentrate even when they have been exercised. These dogs just aren't the best for service work.
Some dogs, like some people, are true introverts. They don't really want to interact with people that much; and if that's your dog, it's likely she'll never really be happy as a service dog. Pushing her to do it anyway won't be good for you or for her.
A service dog could be the answer to your prayers. The right canine companion can make every aspect of your life easier and can help you in ways you might never expect.
The key is getting the right dog to work with you. You need a dog suited to the task, suited to you, and happy to work. Once you find the right dog, though, the results can be nothing short of magical.