First things first….
What is a service dog?
A service dog helps a person with a disability live a more independent life. They are trained to do specific actions that directly relate to and help that person’s disabilities. A service dog is considered a working dog, not a pet.
Alright, so now that you know that, get ready and buckle in! There is A LOT of important information and some key steps you should take before you get a service dog!
Step 1: Be disabled
Okay, so obviously being disabled isn’t a “step to take.” You’re either are disabled, or you aren’t.
Yes, seriously, you need to be disabled to have a legitimate service dog. And no, you can’t fake it.
How do you know if you’re disabled? Well, to understand what being disabled is in the eyes of the law, we’re going to take a look at the American with Disabilities Act (ADA).
The ADA contains the legal information that defines what a person with a disability is. Let’s take a look.
According to the ADA, an individual with a disability is a person who;
- Has a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities;
- Has a record of such an impairment or;
- Is regarded as having such an impairment.
Oh, and don’t worry if some days or weeks your condition is worse than others, because fortunately for you, the ADA has you covered.
The ADA measures a person’s impairment when the condition is most severe, versus when it’s the least severe. So you’ll still be covered if you’re condition waxes and wains if you are considered disabled at your worst.
Also, using corrective measures like a wheelchair or pharmaceuticals don’t disqualify you from still being disabled. Instead, you should focus on how much you were limited before you used the corrective measure, or what would happen to you if you stopped.
It’s super important for you to know that not all diseases, conditions or illnesses are considered disabilities.
Also, it doesn’t mean you’re automatically considered disabled because you have the same diagnosis as someone else who is considered disabled.
What qualifies someone as disabled?
You have to be limited one or more major life activities or bodily functions to be considered disabled.
Examples of major life activities include, but are not limited to:
- Caring for oneself, performing manual tasks, seeing, hearing, eating, sleeping, walking, standing, lifting, bending, speaking, breathing, learning, reading, concentrating, thinking, communicating, and working.
- Functions of the immune system, normal cell growth, digestive, bowel, bladder, neurological, brain, respiratory, circulatory, endocrine, and reproductive functions.
What are examples of conditions where someone might be considered disabled?
Examples of physical or mental impairments often covered by the ADA (this is not an exhaustive list):
- AIDS, and its symptoms
- Blindness or other visual impairments
- Cerebral palsy
- Hearing or speech impairments
- Heart Disease
- Migraine Headaches
- Multiple sclerosis
- Muscular dystrophy
- Orthopedic impairments
- Complications from Pregnancy
- Thyroid gland disorders
- Loss of body parts
Again, you’re not automatically considered disabled just because you have the same diagnosis as someone else who is considered disabled. Your condition must substantially limit a major life activity or bodily function.
Step 2: Talk to a medical professional
When you’re deciding if a service dog is the right fit for you it’s VERY important that you are working with a medical professional. Why?
1.Getting a service dog is life changing
It’s life changing in a lot of great ways and a lot of really challenging ways.
A service dog isn’t generally the first line of recommended treatment because of the many challenges that service dogs bring. It’s a good idea to make sure you have explored all treatment options with your doctor before you decide to get a service dog.
2. To determine if you are disabled
Does your medical doctor (not just a therapist) agree that you are legally disabled and that you need a service dog?
If you decide to owner train (discussed more below) you don’t technically need any documentation from them. But, if you decide to go with a program dog, most likely you’ll need their support to complete required medical documentation that shows that you are legally disabled.
You should have a working relationship with this doctor. It’s ideal that they are aware of the ins and outs of your complete condition and that you have tried other treatments.
Step 3. Decide if you can ACTUALLY afford a dog, let alone a service dog.
Dogs are expensive, Service Dogs are even more expensive, and most people with disabilities make less money than their able bodied peers.
While there haven’t been any formal surveys, I would estimate that service dog owner’s typically spend above and beyond the $140 a month their neighbor is spending on their pet dog.
Service dogs (SD) often need additional speciality items like vests or harnesses, extra training, and x-rays and health check ups that may drastically increase the budget.
Additionally, many SD owners choose to purchase health insurance, and higher quality dog food since their dog needs to be in top shape and condition.
Adding in the extra costs listed above, the average monthly costs of owning a service dog are bumped up to $200-$250 a month. It is also possible that some are spending upwards of $500, depending on what type of health insurance, food and gear they are purchasing.
Keep in mind that when you’re disabled you also lose out on income potential .
Many disabled individuals are often paid less than their healthy peers. According to an American Institutes for Research Analysis (AIR)
Step 4: Do research
More research? Seriously? Yes. A LOT more research!
You should do A LOT of research in the following areas before you decide to commit to a service dog:
- Talk to others with service dogs, especially those who use a service dog for a similar condition
- Watch videos of people with service dog showing their real life experiences (HERE, HERE, and HERE)
- Read blogs about service dogs
- Decide if you will owner train or apply for a program dog (more below)
- Read books about training dogs
- Watch training videos
- Research private trainers in your area
- Study the ADA laws pertaining to service dogs. You need to fully understand the laws
- Research breeds (more below)
Finally, research yourself. That sounds weird, but seriously. You need to take time to explore your feelings about getting a service dog.
Would you be getting a service dog for the right reasons?
Getting a service dog so that you can take your dog everywhere is NOT a good reason.
Getting a service dog to “fix you” isn’t a good reason either.
Recognize that not all conditions can be helped by a service dog, and that getting a service dog doesn’t mean your health issues disappear.
Instead getting a service dog will hopefully help you deal with your condition better, and hopefully ease the effects of your symptoms, but you will still have to deal with some level of disability.
Is this what you are expecting, or are you expecting that all your symptoms will go away?
Step 5: Decide if you will you owner train or get a program dog
In case you didn’t know, the ADA does not require service animals to be professionally trained, so you are legally allowed to train your service dog yourself. However, like any decision in life there are pros and cons to owner training AND pros and cons to getting a program dog.
Pros and cons of owner training
- Generally less expensive
- Bond to your dog early on
- Control the environment and experiences of the dog from a young age
- Control the style of training
- Can teach the dog new tasks as your condition changes
- Can enlist the help of a private trainer
- Takes 1.5-2 years to fully train a service dog
- Takes a lot of time and energy (you may initially feel worse worse before they are fully trained because you’ll use a lot of energy to train)
- Can be hard to complete training and exposure training if you are socially isolated, introverted, or have social anxiety
- Your dog may wash more easily (isn’t a good fit for service work and must be pulled from training)
- Under the ADA (federal law), the dog must already be trained before it can be taken into public places. Fortunately, many States or local laws cover animals that are still in training, but that depends on what state you’re in.
Pros and Cons of getting a Program Dog
- Come fully trained (or mostly trained)
- Work with the standard breeds for service work (Golden retrievers, Labrador retrievers, and Standard poodles)
- Often provide training sessions with you before your match becomes placed with you so that you can learn to to get used to handle the dog
- Work with reputable breeders to obtain healthy, temperamentally sound dogs
- Generally expensive ($10,000-$40,000), although some non-profit organizations donate dogs
- The training may not be tailored to your specific needs (may learn tasks you don’t need, doesn’t know tasks you do need)
- You may not bond or be a good match with the chosen dog
- Typically only use the standard breeds, so can be challenging you need a larger or smaller dog
Step 5: Decide on a breed
The most common breeds (or mixed breeds) for service dogs are Golden Retrievers, German Shepherds, Labrador Retrievers, and Standard Poodles. Goldendoodles, Labradoodles, and Border Collies are also common.
Generally it’s recommended that first time owner trainers work with Golden Retrievers, Labrador Retrievers, or Standard Poodles.
Standard Poodles are extremely intelligent and therefore may be slightly more stubborn and require more advanced training skills than a Golden or Labrador, but have the benefit of being hypoallergenic and non-shedding.
Also, German Shepherds are less likely to be recommended for psychiatric work. They are also generally high drive dogs that require solid dog training skills and experience.
It’s also extremely important that you take into consideration what tasks you will need your service dog to perform.
For example, if you need mobility, you need to make sure that the breed you choose will be tall enough and weigh enough for your requirements to do that kind of work.
Step 6: Shop vs Adopt
“Adopt Don’t Shop” has become an extremely common phrase in the dog world. I think it’s amazing movement and has been pivotal for the tens of thousands of dogs that have been adopted.
However, when you are looking for a service dog, you aren’t just looking for your average pet dog.
You are looking for an above average dog with excellent health, excellent temperament, and excellent socialization that will be working as your medical equipment, and often times will be your lifeline.
While it is possible to find all of these requirements in a dog in a shelter or other similar place, there are risks and extra challenges involved in finding a service dog prospect this way that are important to be aware of.
That being said, there have been dogs from shelters or from other similar situations that have succeeded as service dogs. But again, it’s important to be aware of the risks and challenges so you can decide if it is the best route for you to take.
Pros and cons to getting a shelter/ adopted/rescued dog:
- Less expensive than getting a puppy from a breeder
- If you get a dog over 2 most hereditary issues will show up before this age
- You can get an adult dog whose temperament is more set
- Generally come with all their vaccinations up to date and are spayed and neutered
- May come with some training already (obedience, potty training, leash manners, etc.)
- Have a higher chance of washout because you often don’t know their temperament or triggers in an environment outside the shelter and in a variety of environments
- Can still inherit health issues you won’t know about
- Often don’t know their exact age
- Often don’t know their breed makeup and breed tendencies
Of course, there are also pros and cons of getting a dog from a reputable breeder. Please note that a reputable breeder is VERY different than a puppy mill.
It is generally not recommended that you get a puppy from a pet store as they are often raised in puppy mills which can lead to many issues.
Pros and cons to getting a puppy from a reputable breeder:
- Know the health of the parents
- Puppies have been exposed to various stimuli and socialized from a young age
- Know the temperament of the parents
- Generally have a good idea of what size the dog will become
- Getting a dog from a young age can help form many positive experiences that set a foundation of behavior
- Know exact age
- You are buying a puppy which takes a lot of work and time
- You’re responsible for all training of the puppy
- Can be very expensive to buy from a breeder ($1000-$3000+)
- Some puppy mills often portray themselves as reputable breeders
- Puppies are very expensive their first year with extra shots and vet appointments
- You might need to travel to find a reputable breeder (not a puppy mill/backyard breeder)
Step 7: Temperament testing
Whether you decide to adopt a dog or go with a reputable breeder, all dogs should be temperament tested regardless of their age.
It is best to have a professional trainer temperament test the puppy or dog you are interested in, but as a last result you can do it yourself.
The recommended testing method for puppies is the Volhard Puppy Aptitude test. You can see the test description and items HERE.
There is SO much more that could be said about each step that you should take before getting a service dog, but hopefully this gives you enough information to do some research on your own now!