There is no doubt that service dogs can be such a wonderful asset to those in need. Over the years, we have seen that time, and time, and time again – the tasks these amazing canines can perform make an incredible difference to the lives of families across the country.

We receive applications from all sorts of different cultures and backgrounds asking if they are a good candidate for a service dog. With the increasing popularity and presence of service dogs in modern society, this is no surprise.

Many times, the benefits of a service dog could help them (depending on the tasks that are needed) – however, if you don’t set up the right environment you will not reap the full benefits of our four-legged partners. This is something that many families overlook when they consider acquiring a service dog.

service dog in training out in public

Service dogs need structure

Families are always searching for a tool that will better the lives of those with certain disabilities. That’s completely understandable, and given the potential benefits of a service dog, it’s no wonder that we are contacted by so many families who believe a service dog can make a difference.

However, there is one important thing that you must remember if you are considering a service dog – service dogs are just that – a tool. They aren’t your typical pet dog. A service dog must be taken care of, respected, and put away in the right place at the end of the day.

In essence, what we’re trying to say here is that, in this instance, love on its own isn’t enough.

It is essential for service dogs to have structure both inside the house and outside the house. Much like children, dogs thrive with structure, because it gives them the opportunity to perform the right behavior at the right time. At the end of the day, most dogs just want to please you, and of course they enjoy those treats and attention.

Setting a service dog up in an environment of success makes it more likely that they will be able to perform their trained tasks to their maximum ability. Not only is this beneficial for the dog (it knows what to expect, and how to behave, without any hint of doubt), but it also ensures the family can remain confident in the service dog’s ability – and of course, the most important thing, that the service dog can reliably perform the tasks which will help improve the handler’s quality of life.

To demonstrate the importance of environment for service dogs, we thought we would share some examples of what doesn’t work – or, in fact, makes life harder to have a service dog in your home. We spoke with our owner, Erin Purgason, to get a first-hand perspective.

autism service dog in training

Creating a successful environment for a service dog

“One of the first deliveries I went on (which was well over a decade ago) was a family out of state,” says Erin. “I had met them early in the process. They were a nice family, nice home, multiple children, and really wanted a dog to help their child.

Once on delivery, I realized there was simply no structure or boundaries in the house. For example, kids got their choice of food when and where they wanted it; there was no set bedtime; and often the kids slept where they fell instead of going to their room for bedtime.”

As Erin explains, every family environment is different – but there are some that are helpful to service dogs, and others which make it more difficult for the service dog to acclimate.

“Again, I am not judging, but this environment was hard for a service dog to adjust to. Basically, the dog had free run of the house at all times, but then was expected to behave in public (as they should). Of course there were issues.

Let me be clear – your Service Dog can be just a dog at home (getting lots of belly rubs and playtime), however there has to be balance. We can’t have your dog eating from the table and counter surfing at home, because the moment you go into a public restaurant, the dog now thinks that sort of behavior is acceptable – and of course, it isn’t.

Our dogs get thousands of hours of training and socialization before they are delivered to your home. However, to use the child analogy again, dogs are very similar in that they are opportunist. Dogs will push the limits in their new home, see what they can get away with, and push boundaries. It is our job as trainers to prepare you for that, which is why we spend so much time with you on deliveries. We want you to be able to apply the obedience and tasks in different settings when they are needed and feel comfortable about it. Of course it will not be perfect, but that’s okay – your career is not in dog training – but we still want you to understand it.”

How long does it take for a service dog to settle?

Erin makes one final, important point about how long it can take for a new service dog to feel entirely comfortable in their new home. Although our service dog deliveries last a few days, it will take a little longer for your new service dog to feel at home.

“We also like to remind our families it takes a good month or so for the dogs to truly get settled in their new forever home,” says Erin. “After all, they have been with the trainers at Highland Canine for well over a year (and for most, since they were a puppy).

It is very common for the dog to pace the new home, have accidents, even growl or bark at new noises in the house – especially at night. Put yourself in their shoes for a moment – if we took you away from everything you knew and made you come live with me, it would rock your world too. So patience and the right environment is absolutely necessary!”

In conclusion

To answer the question posed in the title of this article, there simply is no such thing as ‘perfect’ setting for a service dog.

Why?

It’s simply because none of us are perfect. You can’t just drop a service dog into a new home and expect immediate perfection.

However, with work, structure and determination, we can make it a great home and make sure everyone – the family, the handler and the service dog – benefits!

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