By Stephanie Harbeck
So you’ve decided you want a service dog. Life has become a daily struggle and you find yourself thinking “this migraine is killing me, I want the lights off, but I’m too nauseous to get up?” or “Bending down makes me so dizzy, but I dropped something on the floor. How am I going to get it?” or even “I keep having these blood sugar crashes. I wish I knew when they were coming.” Service dogs can be an incredible part of their disabled handler’s health plan making their difficult daily lives just a little easier to navigate, but where do you start? How do you even get a service dog? The concept can seem overwhelming, but by taking things step by step, you’ll be on your way to a more independent life in no time.
Service Dogs and the ADA
In the United States, a service animal is defined by the Americans with Disabilities Act as, “Any dog that is individually trained to do work or perform tasks for the benefit of an individual with a disability, including a physical, sensory, psychiatric, intellectual, or other mental disability.” As a service dog handler, the first and most important thing to learn, before you get a prospect are the laws and your rights as a disabled individual. Many people think you can just get a dog and put a service dog vest from the internet on them, and bam! Instant service animal. This couldn’t be further from the truth.
In the United States, only two animals are federally recognized as service animals, dogs, and miniature horses. Individual states can create their own laws giving handlers more rights, but they cannot give them less than what is federally designated. It is also important to note in the United States there is no federal registration, certification, or identification for service animals. All websites claiming to sell these things are scams and should be avoided at all costs. This is noted in the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) Frequently Asked Questions section of the ADA.gov website. Familiarizing yourself with this page is crucial to understanding your rights and the FAQ format makes it easy to pull up on your phone in case of an access issue with your trained service dog. You can also carry a printed copy around with you. This is not required, but can be helpful.
Where To Find Service Dogs
Okay, so now you understand laws a bit and you’re wondering, but where do I get a dog? Handlers in the United States are granted more freedoms than some other countries when it comes to service dogs. We’re allowed to choose whether to use a program or train our own dogs. Both have their pros and cons so it’s important to weigh each one to see what will best fit your personal needs.
Programs can be found throughout the country for all types of disabilities. Some specialize in training guide dogs, others seizure alert, and some do multiple kinds of dogs in one facility. These programs train service dogs from puppyhood until they’re ready to be matched with a handler. Some programs match dogs with handlers early tailoring the training to the handler's needs, and others don’t match dogs until right before they’re set to go home if less personally tailored training is needed. Programs can have a wait time of 6 months to 4 years depending on the needs of the handler and how many people are in line for a dog. Average cost for a program trained dog is $10,000 - $40,000. Many programs offer financial assistance and fundraising to help with these costs.
Service dogs can also be trained by their handler directly. This would mean acquiring a puppy or young dog, ideally from a reputable breeder who does health testing and does extensive socialization and training them yourself or with the help of a professional trainer. Depending on your skill level with dog training, whether you need to seek help from a professional trainer, the cost of the dog, and the cost of vet care and food in your area, this option can still cost upwards of $10,000 - $20,000 by the time your dog is fully trained. It is generally not recommended for first-time handlers to go this route unless they already have a solid understanding of dog behavior and training, as well as the time to put into training their own dog.
How Much Training Does A Service Dog Really Need?
Service dogs, on average, take two years to train from start to finish, though those of us who are handlers like to say training is never truly finished. These two years of training include an array of behaviors and an extreme amount of hours. Puppies begin with extensive socialization and basic obedience, moving into advanced obedience, and from there into task training and public access training. Some states allow Service Dogs in Training (SDiT) public access rights, and others do not. It’s important to know your state laws before taking your dog into public for training. If your state does not have rights for SDiT you will be restricted to training in pet-friendly environments or getting permission to train in an area that is not pet-friendly. If your state does offer SDiT rights, you are free to move about as if your dog were fully trained. However, it’s important to understand no SDiT should be moving into public access training until they are fully potty trained and have basic obedience skills.
While it is not required by law, many handlers like to seek out certain training accomplishments along the way to show their dog’s level of training. These can include the AKC S.T.A.R. (Socialization, Training, Activity and Responsible owner) Puppy and the AKC CGC (Canine Good Citizenship.) The Public Access Test can also be completed when you feel your dog’s training is complete. This is a test many programs use and can be found readily available online on the IAADP (International Association of Assistance Dog Partners) website. Most handlers will choose to record this test for their own records. This is a personal choice and also not a requirement.
Which Dog Breeds Can Be Service Animals?
Legally speaking, any breed of dog can be a service animal. The dog can also come from any place. With that being said. There are some suggested guidelines to follow when choosing a dog. Dogs from reputable breeders often make the best service dogs. That’s not to say rescue dogs don’t have what it takes, but the washout (failure) rate is much higher. This is entirely due to genetics. Dogs that are bred to have excellent temperaments and stable personalities overwhelmingly do better. Some breeders even have trained service dogs in their lines already, which is a great thing to look for when searching for a prospect. As for breeds, the three most common breeds used in service dog programs are Standard Poodles, Labradors, and Golden Retrievers. This is because these breeds are highly intelligent, eager to work, have low prey drive, and are easy to handle. Close seconds include Rough Collies, Australian Shepherds, and German Shepherds. When choosing a breed it’s important to consider how that breed will fit into your lifestyle and your abilities as a disabled person. For example, if you find yourself bedridden often in an apartment, a high energy dog like a Border Collie might not be the best choice for you. Or if you have dog allergies, a Standard Poodle might be best. Consider your lifestyle first, and your needs as a handler second.
The following resources will help you continue your journey into learning about service dogs:
To see a Lyme Disease service dog in action, check out Aila’s Service Dog Journey on Facebook and on Instagram @servicedogaila.