by Chelsea Goldstein, Dysautonomia Information Network
Your research on assistance animals may have you feeling confident that a service dog could help you live more independently and sustainably. If this is you, rock on and read on. If you are still unsure of whether a service animal is the right fit for you, consider reading It's Doggone Confusing: Understanding Service Animals and Emotional Support Animals (ESAs) before continuing this article to better understand if a service dog is your best option (but still, rock on). Remember that a service animal is trained to help an individual with a disability with specific tasks related to their disability. For example, a dog may be trained to sense pre-syncope and alert their handler so they can get to a safe place and recline.
If you are ready for a service dog, it can be overwhelming to start the process. We have all heard how expensive and time consuming it can be to get/train a service animal, so it is important that you understand your options to determine which one is best for your needs, resources, and abilities.
What to expect
Understanding the process can minimize future frustrations.
Training. Service animal training is primarily focused on two major qualifications that are required by the ADA: 1) the animal can assist the handler with specific tasks related to their disability, and 2) the animal can remain calm, focused, and well behaved in a variety of stimulating public settings (1). The ADA, however, does not specify how animals should receive such training, and there are not any federally required certifications or tests to qualify service animals. This lack of federal regulation is a double-edge sword: it protects the rights of individuals with disabilities, but it also makes it easier for others to abuse the designation of service animal, which can be dangerous if the animals are not properly trained. It is important that you take service animal training seriously to ensure you can safely and responsibly work with your dog when out and about.
Time Commitment. Depending on the route you choose, the time commitment of getting and/or training a service animal varies. However, expect that it will take a significant amount of time and focus to ensure you and your dog have a productive and sustainable working partnership. Even if you get an already-trained service animal, the certifying organization often requires that you stay on premise for several weeks to months for intensive joint training (2).
Expense. Service animals are also known to be expensive. Costs may vary, but an already-trained service animal could cost upwards of $25,000 (2). While this is an extraordinary expense, there are ways to reduce it. Many organizations will help procure financial support that drastically reduces, or even eliminates, the final cost. More cost-effective solutions include getting training for an animal you already own, or even training your animal yourself.
Goals. As mentioned previously, there are not any federally-mandated certifications or tests for dogs to become service animals. However, the rights of the handler are only upheld if the dog is trained in specific tasks that support the handler's disability, and if the dog is well-behaved in public. A number of organizations determine readiness of a human and animal pair to work together in public by administering a Public Access Test (developed by the organization or a coalition of organizations). Assistance Dogs International (ADI) is one such coalition that has established minimum standards for training and testing. Many reputable organizations use their Public Access Test. Upon passing the test, these organizations often give the human and dog team some type of certification. Beware that training organizations vary widely, and a good place to start your search may be this list of ADI accredited organizations that can be found on their website.
Getting a Service Dog: Option 1
Perhaps the most well-known way to acquire a service dog is to purchase a dog that has already been selected for service work and trained by a reputable organization.
The Process. Many people consider buying a service dog from a reputable training organization. This is certainly a good option to ensure that your dog is professionally trained with stringent standards. It also provides you with a lot of guidance on how to work with your new animal.
However, the process of getting a service dog is more complicated than simply picking one out (2). The actual steps may vary by organization, but the process generally involves interviews, assessments of your needs, and joint training with your new service animal. For example, one well established organization requires interested handlers to complete an initial and full application. Then they have a phone interview and fill out medical paperwork, followed by an in-person interview. Only then are they accepted as a handler. Even after this arduous screening process, they may be put on a wait list until a dog with the skill set and temperament to meet their specific needs is available (3). Finally, the handler will usually be required to stay on-site for several weeks to a month to complete joint training with their dog (2).
These steps may seem overwhelming, but they are there to ensure that people getting service animals are fully supported in their needs, and that the training can be sustained and helpful to the handler for many years. Beware of any training organizations with minimal screening requirements.
Pros. One of the major pros of this option is that the dogs are selected or responsibly bred specifically to be service animals. These strict selection and breeding criteria provide strong probability that the animals have the right temperament for service dog work, and are receptive to training. Even still, 50-70% of service dog candidates do not pass testing and certification. While this drop-out rate may be high, it also means that only the most well-qualified dogs are the ones being matched with handlers (1). Do not worry, there are often long waiting lists to adopt service dog drop-outs because they are still very well trained and good with people. Additionally, these dogs are generally chosen for service training as puppies, which means that they will not have any negative behaviors due to improper past training that need to be addressed.
Cons. This is usually the most expensive option for getting a service dog. While it can cost around $25,000, there are often avenues for financial aid (1). Additionally, some potential handlers reported that they were deterred from this option because they were on wait lists for over two years and still weren't matched with dogs. Other people have said that they did not have enough time to fully bond with their dog before leaving the training facility, likening the first year of living with a school-trained service dog to a new marriage: there is a lot of adjustment before you can effectively work together (4).
Getting a Service Dog: Option 2
Another option is to take your own dog to a professional service dog organization for training.
The Process. Sometimes pets can make excellent service animals. This may be an appealing option if you already own a dog that shows promise as a service animal, and the thought of adding another dog to your household seems a bit overwhelming. First, you should honestly assess your pet's temperament to decide if they will be suitable for service dog work. Service dogs need to remain calm, even in unfamiliar settings, have a willingness to please you, should be able to learn and retain information, should be reliable, and are socialized to many different environments (1). Many companies that train service dogs will do a temperament assessment to ensure the animal is a good fit for their program (2).
Again, there are no federal mandates for service dog training, but many reputable organizations will require about six months to complete training courses and prepare for a Public Access Test. Training is often administered in small groups of dog and handler teams, with support from the trainers to reinforce the skills at home. Some organizations also offer one-on-one training (1). The training program that works for you is highly dependent on your expectations, budget, and needs. Take some time to contact several reputable organizations in your area, if available, and discuss what type of programs they offer before making a final decision. Most reputable training programs will be considered completed when you and your dog pass a Public Access Test.
Pros. These professional programs often emphasize training for the human-dog team, meaning they recognize that training for the human is just as important as canine instruction to ensure that the pair is successful after the program. They also may include periodic follow-up training to brush-up on skills and address any issues that may arise (1). Additionally, this option usually costs around $5,000 to $10,00 in the US (2). While this is still a large sum of money, it is significantly less than purchasing an already trained dog. Finally, the emotional bond and trust you have already developed with your pet will be invaluable in a successful training experience.
Cons. The biggest risk in this option is that there is no guarantee your dog will pass the Public Access Test. If your dog does not pass the first time, the responsible thing to do would be to continue training your dog and take the test again, or choose another option to acquire a service animal. This can result in additional costs.
This is why honestly assessing the qualities of your dog before you pay for training is essential. We all know that our own dogs are the most adorable, and most perfect, and most lovable. But if they get extremely excited anytime they see a ball or other dog, they may not be the best fit for service work. This doesn't mean they're any less lovable, they're just not a good fit for the job.
Getting a Service Dog: Option 3
Finally, training your own service dog is an option for individuals who are willing to commit a lot of time and effort.
The Process. Once again, the ADA does not require a specific type of training for service dogs. This means, you can do it yourself if you are up for the task (1). Similar to the option above, you need to make an honest and thorough assessment of your pet's temperament and qualities. What characteristics would make them a good service animal? What qualities or behaviors may detract from service work? Can your training address those non-serving behaviors?
Take your time in the assessment phase. Some experts report that the greatest mistake handlers make is trying to force an unsuitable dog to become a service animal. This can often set the handler up for unnecessary frustration as they fail to train an animal to do tasks they're just not suited to do (5). Remember, that a great pet does not necessarily make a good service animal. For example, a playful and friendly pet may get too distracted from the service task at hand when in public.
Similar to the other options, this process will take time. Experts recommend starting with basic house training, such as sit, stay, and lay down commands, and teaching your dog to eliminate in specific locations on demand. Then, you should work on socializing your animal in a variety of public settings while encouraging them to stay focused on you and the given task. Finally, you should introduce specific disability-related skills that you would like your dog to learn.
Pros. One obvious benefit of this option is cost. While there is no upfront fee to train your own animal, there are often extraneous costs to consider such as training books and videos, treats, training supplies, and your time and energy.
There are, however, a plethora of resources available online to guide training (2). The American Kennel Club (AKC) Good Citizen Program provides several resources for basic training, and your pet can even be evaluated on ten major tasks.
Finally, training your dog yourself provides you with a lot of control and understanding about working with your animal out in public. You will, arguably, learn your dog's quirks and behaviors better than you would if they were trained by someone else.
Cons. This avenue can be time consuming, energy draining, and frustrating. But also rewarding. So, in addition to assessing your pet's temperament, you should honestly assess if you feel prepared for the job. If you have limited experience working with animals you should be prepared to do a lot of learning, or consider another avenue. There will be less outside support in this option, so it is important you do your homework with reputable sources to ensure you aren't accidentally reinforcing poor behavior in your animal.
Take Home Points
Training or getting a service animal is a big step. Here are a few things to remember...
Make sure your animal is properly trained. Even if you train your dog yourself, you should consider getting professional input at some point. When looking for organizations to train, or assist in training, a dog don't be afraid to ask the trainers several questions before committing your time and money to an organization (1). A properly trained service animal is an investment in your future. If done right, it can dramatically improve your quality of life (2). However, a poorly trained or improperly represented service animal poses danger to the public and damages the reputations of service dog handlers. This statement from the AKC outlines why the misuse of service dogs is so detrimental to people living with disabilities (1).
These options are not mutually exclusive. Your responsibility as a potential service dog handler is to thoroughly review your training options and make an informed decision about the best avenue for you and your animal. You may decide that a combination of approaches is the best fit for your needs and budget. For example, several handlers have reported that they trained their dogs in basic tasks on their own, and they sought professional support for more advanced work. This can dramatically reduce the costs and time commitment of professional training, while also ensuring you have a strong working bond with your dog (4).
You will need support throughout the process, especially if you train your own dog. Training a service animal can be emotional and physically taxing no matter what route you take. You may want some professional help if the idea of training your animal yourself is overwhelming. Even if you manage most of the training on your own, it is important to have an outlet for emotional support and feedback. The DINET forum is always a great space for connection, and this Facebook group is dedicated to discussion about service animals for people with POTS.
You should also ensure that any housemates are onboard with supporting your training. They need to understand and reinforce the behaviors and tasks you are teaching your dog, and NOT encourage poor behavior. This can be confusing to the animal and jeopardize your training process.
Make sure you are working with a reputable organization. The ADI accredits organizations around the world that meet their minimum standards and use their Public Access Test. This list of ADI accredited trainers may be a good place to start your search. Organizations that are members of IAADP have also met a set of minimum standards for service dog training. Whatever organization you choose, make sure that you ask a lot of questions and feel comfortable with the organization's process before you commit.
- Karetnick, J. (2019, September 24). Service dogs 101: Everything you need to know. American Kennel Club. https://www.akc.org/expert-advice/training/service-dog-training-101/
- Driscoll, E. (2019, June 4). The ins and outs of owning and training a service dog. Dysautonomia Information Network (DINET). https://www.dinet.org/info/newsletters/the-ins-and-outs-of-owning-and-training-a-service-dog-r222/
- Apply for an assistance dog. (2020). Canine Companions for Independence. https://www.cci.org/assets/files/apply-for-an-assistance-dog.pdf
- Furlong, R. (2006, December 1). Training your own service dog. New Mobility. https://www.newmobility.com/2006/12/training-your-own-service-dog/
- Froling, J. (1998). Finding a suitable candidate for assistance dog work. https://www.iaadp.org/type.html
- Assistance Dog International. https://assistancedogsinternational.org/
- American Kennel Club. https://www.akc.org/
- Canine Good Citizen Program. https://www.akc.org/products-services/training-programs/canine-good-citizen/
- Service Dogs for POTS Facebook Group. https://www.facebook.com/groups/110152023042832/
- The Dog Alliance. https://www.thedogalliance.org/training-your-own-service-dog
- Dog Owner. https://www.dogowner.co.uk/
- Lean on Me - The Remarkable Story of a young woman with POTS and the Dog that Keeps her Safe. https://www.dinet.org/member-stories/lean-on-me-–-the-remarkable-story-of-a-young-woman-with-pots-and-the-dog-that-keeps-her-safe-r208/
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