Service dogs are an amazing asset for many individuals and their families, helping people with disabilities to live a higher quality of life.
These highly trained dogs can accomplish many tasks – from a mobility service dog picking up a dropped key for a person using a wheelchair, to a seizure service dog notifying their handlers of an oncoming seizure.
If you are exploring how to get a service dog for a family member, or are looking into options for getting a service dog for yourself, there are several factors to consider in your decision-making process. In this article, we’ll explain how to get a service dog, and outline the pros and cons of various methods of obtaining one.
Who is eligible for a service dog?
There are federal laws in place that define a service animal – and who is eligible to qualify for service animals. According to the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), a disability is a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities.
One thing to note here is ADA describes service animals as a dog that has received training to perform tasks for an individual with a disability. This excludes dogs trained for emotional support, or other animals trained for similar purposes.
It is important to understand the difference between a service dog and an emotional support animal (ESA). An ESA provides emotional support, and doesn’t require any specialized task training. These animals are simply there to comfort their owners. The exemptions in place for service dogs don’t apply to ESAs (such as entering public places where pets normally aren’t permitted).
Service dogs are protected under federal law. The handlers of service dogs can walk into businesses, nonprofit organizations, and state and local governments that serve the general public, regardless of their pet policy. Denying entrance to individuals with disabilities who are accompanied by their service dog is against the law.
Assess your requirements for a service dog
While service dogs can provide multiple benefits to individuals with disabilities, they are a big commitment. Individuals need to consider the time it takes to care for a service dog. It can also be a significant financial commitment, albeit one that typically provides benefits for several years.
Like any other dog, a service dog has its own requirements. They need to be fed, exercised, given mental stimulation, and taken to veterinary appointments. As a prospective service dog owner, you (and your family) should assess how you will be able to provide the service dog with these needs.
If the service dog can be properly cared for, the next step is to look at the precise nature of the help that the service dog will provide. Service dogs are trained for specific tasks to help individuals overcome difficulties in their lives. Understanding what the dog can do for you – and how they would fit into your daily life – is important.
Options for getting a service dog
Once the decision has been made to get a service dog, there are several options for actually obtaining one. Each option comes with its own benefits and disadvantages.
Option 1: Train your own service dog
Training a dog yourself is the most cost-effective way to get a service dog. With this option, you can either choose a pet dog you already own, or identify a service dog candidate and train them yourself.
- You can invest as much time as you need into your dog and teach them for your requirements.
- You can feel empowered to know that you trained the service dog yourself.
- There are no additional expenses for hiring a professional service dog trainer or organization.
- Ensuring that dog can perform their trained tasks consistently may be more difficult for the average dog owner to achieve, without a formal education or understanding of dog training.
- Service dogs need to have the right temperament, and need to be well-suited for their work. Dog owners may not be familiar with how to properly perform temperament testing on their potential service dog.
- Training your own service dog is a huge time commitment – bear in mind, it can take up to a year for professionals to train a reliable service dog.
Option 2: Have a professional trainer/organization train your dog to be a service dog
Many organizations are able to train an individual’s pet dog to become a service dog, by bringing the pet dog into their service dog program.
- This option is typically cheaper, as you are providing the dog to the organization.
- As you already have a bond with your dog, it can be rewarding to know that the relationship will continue to grow as your pet dog graduates to become a service dog.
- The dog may have previous behavioral traits or other issues that prevent it from being a good fit for service dog work.
- The dog may not have the right temperament or attitude to be a service dog, or the breed may be unsuitable for the type of service dog work (e.g. choosing a toy breed for mobility tasks).
- If it transpires that your pet dog is not a good fit for service dog work, it may result in wasted time and wasted money.
Option 3: Get a fully trained service dog from a professional service dog trainer or organization
With this option, you work with a professional trainer or company which specializes in providing fully-trained service dogs. They will typically help you at every step of the process – from selecting the right puppy, to socializing and building a solid foundation of obedience, to the task training itself.
- Professional service dog trainers should have a track record of providing service dogs for a variety of purposes. Their experience will be valuable for helping a service dog to be tailored to the specific needs of their handler.
- By testing puppies for temperament and aptitude, professional service dog trainers can ensure that the service dog candidate is well-suited for the requirements of a service dog.
- For any service dog tasks – but particularly complex ones, that may be difficult to train – experienced service dog trainers have the ability to troubleshoot and make sure the task is trained successfully and performed reliably in all situations.
- Due to the amount of time and expertise involved, purchasing a service dog from a service dog organization typically requires a greater financial investment.
Which option is best for you?
Whilst it is definitely possible to train your own service dog, the complexity and time commitments can be too difficult for some individuals. Anyone who is inexperienced with dogs, or does not understand the fundamentals of how dogs learn, should disregard this option.
In certain situations, using your existing pet dog and asking a service dog organization to train them into a service dog can work. However, remember that time and financial resources can be poured into these efforts, only for the dog to be deemed unsuitable for the work.
The option with the highest success rate – and which provides the most reliable results, in terms of task reliability and a well-rounded service dog – is to get a fully trained service dog from a professional organization. Professional service dog trainers have successful processes in place, to ensure the training process runs smoothly from start to finish. Organizations like Highland Canine Service Dogs will also deliver the service dog to your home, helping to acclimate your new service dog into its new surroundings (we also provide follow-ups and ongoing support post-delivery should you require it).
Determining which option is best for you comes down to your budget, your own dog training proficiency, and the time you have available. Ultimately, the decision is yours! Remember, a service dog can make a huge difference, and is certainly an investment that will pay off over the course of several years.