Service Dogs enhance their human partner’s lives in so many ways. Sometimes, these special dogs even save their human’s life through complex and highly trained task work. However, Service Dog partnerships are full of hard, neverending work for both the handler and dog. Before getting a Service Dog, here are 10 important things to understand.
NOTE: This article assumes all parties involved understand the federal Service Dog laws and the requirements for legally partnering with a Service Dog. In a nutshell, to be eligible for a Service Dog partnership, the human handler MUST have a disability as defined by U.S. federal law, and the dog MUST perform specific, trained tasks to mitigate that disability. This article also assumes the dog in question meets industry-standard requirements of behavior and training.
1. Service Dogs Are Not Fashion Accessories
Service Dogs are living, breathing, sentient creatures. They possess highly specialized skills meant to aid you in your day to day life. They are not meant to merely trot along after you or to help you present an image. They’re with you to work, so if you’re expecting something different, getting a Service Dog may not be for you.
2. Service Dogs Mean You Will Never Be Alone
Are you prepared to have a dog within two to six feet of you for the rest of your/its natural life? In order to perform their tasks, most Service Dogs have to remain in close proximity with their handler. When you move, they’ll usually move. They’ll follow you from room to room. They’ll sleep under your desk or at your feet while you work or watch a movie.
They’ll be literally attached to you, either physically or verbally, any time you’re outside of the house. They are your Service Dog, your partner, your friend, your helper, your other half, your teammate. Yours, yours, yours. If you’re the kind of person who needs space or time away from responsibilities or managing others, getting a Service Dog may not be for you.
3. Service Dogs Require Daily Maintenance and Care
Service Dogs, like any dog, are living creatures. They require daily nutrition, exercise, relief breaks, and mental stimulation. They need to be groomed regularly, and they must have their emotional needs met. There are no days off from this, regardless of how you feel. When you’re sick, your Service Dog still needs to go outside. When you’re at your lowest and darkest, your Service Dog still needs their teeth, ears, feet, and anal glands taken care of. When you’re in so much pain you can’t see straight, your Service Dog still needs to eat and to stretch their legs a bit.
If you have someone who can help you with taking care of your Service Dog’s needs, that’s excellent. If you don’t, though, those responsibilities fall to you, and only you. Every day. Rain or shine. Good day or bad day. All days . . . . for the next eight to fifteen years. If you’re not able to commit to that level of care, getting a Service Dog probably isn’t for you.
4. Service Dogs Aren’t Easy to Get
Getting a Service Dog is far from easy. You can’t just go down to the Service Dog tree and pick the perfect one. Whether you decide to get a Service Dog from a program or to owner-train your own Service Dog, it’s a long, hard, and quite often, expensive road. There are forms to fill out. Interviews to sit through. Private information to share. Lifestyle choices to discuss. And frequently, there are long, hard waits, for either the program to train your dog, or for the right dog to come to you so you can train your dog.
You are literally combing the planet for a near-perfect dog with thousands of dollars of training (or a dog that is capable of being trained to that degree), and you’re probably working with other humans (program staff, rescue coordinators, doctors, therapists, etc.) in order to make that happen. If upheaval, strife, failure, waiting lists, and/or difficulties aren’t something you’re prepared to accept and handle, then getting a Service Dog may not be for you.
5. Service Dogs Mean You Will Have to Talk and Talk and Talk
You will never, ever, ever be invisible ever again. You can wave bye bye to “quick errands.” Going anywhere with a Service Dog means you’ll have to stop and answer (the same 4) questions for most adults you pass, and almost anyone with a child. You will have to explain that the law does, in fact, allow you to have “this dog” with you, and that yes, they are, indeed, a “Helper Dog,” to use the same term the person earning minimum wage for sitting at the door and saying hello to all who enter used.
You will have to educate shop owners and big box store managers. You’ll be used as a teaching opportunity for toddlers and elementary schoolers. You’ll be asked over and over and over again about your dog, your medical history, your disability, and other private details about your life. You will be stared at, pointed at, yelled at, talked about, and followed. Lots of people are wonderful in public, but just as many are not.
You’ll also be told about every dog anyone you encounter has ever known, and how much like your Service Dog they are, except they were half the size with twice the hair and a different color and sometimes they growled at kids, but isn’t that cute!? Bonus round: everyone has a dog that they just know would make a great Service Dog. Everyone.
Some Service Dog teams love this part of things, but it crushes the soul out of others. If lots of personal interaction and conflict resolution aren’t high on your list of skills or wants, and/or if you suffer from social anxiety, getting a Service Dog may not be for you.
6. Service Dogs Require Lots of Ongoing Training
You have to maintain a sort of professional relationship with your Service Dog, and that means continuously upholding your dog’s training and skill sets. It’s not like having a pet, even when your dog is “off duty.” As an example, if you don’t stick to the rules because you think it’s cute to give your dog snacks off your plate, you will pay for your indiscretion for a long time when you need to go to a restaurant.
Service Dogs have to meet behavioral and training standards, and how you handle and love them at home is a big part of that. You have to reinforce their training while, hopefully, continuing their education. What you don’t use, you lose, so their skills have to be practiced regularly, and their skills are the entire point of the partnership. Pets exist for companionship, so if that’s all you want, get a pet. Service Dogs are meant to work, so if you’re not ready to support your dog in their learning needs, getting a Service Dog probably isn’t for you.
7. Service Dogs Need You to Be Assertive
When you have a Service Dog, you and you alone are responsible for standing up for both yourself AND your dog. That includes to your spouse. To family. To the veterinarian. To groomers. To doctors. To complete strangers. To children. You need your Service Dog; that’s why you have them. You need your dog happy, focused, responsive, and attentive, so they can be at your best, which results in you being closer to your best.
You will have to tell people they can’t pet your dog. You will have to ask them to not make noises at or otherwise interact with your dog. You will need to be assertive enough to tell strangers “No you can’t feed my service dog a bite of your food.” You might need to tell your veterinarian *not* to restrain your dog for nail trims, as you need your dog to be comfortable with full-body touch, and you’ll work on desensitizing nail trims at home. You’ll have to tell groomers you won’t just drop your dog off, as you need to be with your dog. You’ll have to tell family that your dog’s attention needs to be on you, so if they’re playing with or distracting your dog, your dog can’t do their job.
You’re going to have to learn how to say “no” to a lot of people. You’re going to have to deny lots of people what they want. You’re going to have to prevent (pet) professionals who are “just doing their job” from setting back your dog’s training and/or socialization. You’re going to have to lay down the law and expect people to adhere to it, for the good of your Service Dog and your partnership. If being assertive isn’t one of your specialties or something you’re willing to do, getting a Service Dog probably isn’t for you.
8. Service Dogs Necessitate a Sense of Humor
People are going to say and do the strangest things to you, to your dog, and/or around you or your dog. Your Service Dog will do some pretty groan-inducing things at least once or twice. Remember, they’re Service DOGS, not Service ROBOTS. These circumstances regularly involve explosive diarrhea or your dog stealing something off a shelf without you noticing and the two of you accidentally walking out and getting stopped by security for theft. Things will go wrong, sometimes horrifically wrong, and it’s never going to happen when you’re feeling good.
You’re going to have to laugh at situations, at your dog, at people, at life. Maybe it’s only so you don’t cry, but you’re definitely going to need to be able to laugh. If you tend to sweat the petty stuff, then getting a Service Dog may not be for you.
9. Service Dogs Mean You Will Be Ignored
Coming after the first point which can be summed up with, “You’re never going to be invisible again,” this one sounds a little strange. However, it simply means that you, the person, the human half of this Service Dog team, are going to be ignored on a routine and regular basis. People like dogs. Nay, people LOVE dogs. People especially love really good dogs.
People are going to talk to your dog before they talk to you. People are going to do things without asking you, almost as if you’re not even there. People may even try to talk to you through your Service Dog. People will look at your dog and not you, even if they’re talking to you. Expect this. Own it. Be prepared for it. If you’re unable to accept playing second fiddle to a dog, then getting a Service Dog may not be for you.
10. Service Dogs Mean “Spontaneous” is No Longer a Thing
You are never going to be able to just pick up and go somewhere or do something ever again. Having a Service Dog is akin to having a toddler. Where’s the treat pouch? Where’s the Gentle Leader? The regular collar? Is the right tag on the collar? Where’s the vest? Not that one, the other one. Yeah, that one. And the over-the-shoulder leash. Oh, and it’s hot outside; need to grab the boots. And a place mat. Bettered grab a bag to put all this in, plus a couple spares, and some food and water and bowl, just in case. Plus everything I myself need, like medication, snacks, documentation, a sweater and a book.
You are going to have to plan and prepare for everything. For bigger outings, like the zoo or a theme park, you may be required to get specific vaccinations or to meet special criteria. You might have to check which areas your Service Dog is or is not allowed, so you can better plan your day. Before you go anywhere, your dog has to be dressed and given a quick once over. The days of just walking or rolling out the front door are over, so if you’re the kind of person who thrives on being as free as a bird, getting a Service Dog may not be for you.
Raj March 7, 2017
Hurrah! I am going to print this out and laminate it for when I am next approach ed by someone who wants a service dog or believes I did this just because I wanted a status symbol. Thank you for putting this in black and white… more people need to understand this was not a choice more so than it was a way to feel normal after having life changing medical issues.
Peter Greene March 7, 2017
Thank you for this article. It is spot on and speaks to the points that most people never hear until after they get a service dog. I’ve had my dog for a little over two years and I can attest that you are absolutely right with every point.
I was just telling my friend about my recent experience at an NBA game. I got lucky and got seats right near the court. Consequently, the security staff met my dog immediately. They spread the word via radio. EVERYWHERE I went, every arena staff would say, “Hi Rambo!” without even looking up at me.
Another time I stayed at a hotel across the street from a Starbucks that I visited each morning of my six day stay. By the third day the entire staff would say “Good morning, Rambo!” when we walked through the door. Yet, when I ordered my coffee, each day they would ask me, “your name, sir?” Ugh.
On the opposite side, there are days that I really don’t want to talk with people and, assuming things are calm and I’m feeling well, I will let the people fawn over my dog while they ignore me. I prefer this to the staring and pointing. One thing I have found that is that when people are pointing and watching it isn’t always to see what the guy with a service dog is doing, its because they just love dogs and are appreciating my dog from afar. These are the sorts that will politely ask if they can say hello to my dog when we are, for example, just sitting in the corner of the coffee shop reading the paper, etc. I often let them have a few minutes with my dog. They enjoy it and it helps keep my dog well socialized. It is also a bit of added mental and tactile stimulation for him so its not such a bad things. There are times that I will flat refuse to let anyone distract my dog but when the situation is right, come on over and watch what happens when I tell my dog to “visit.” The other thing is that, while he is getting attention from a stranger, he always keeps one eye on me and if I move or call for him he disengages in a heartbeat and is right by my side.
I can say one thing for sure. I have never had such a close bond with a dog like this. It is so amazingly special that it is impossible to describe without an hour of gushing about how wonderful this animal is. I am so grateful for my dog and not a day goes by that I don’t appreciate his beauty, grace and love.
Debbie Christiansen March 8, 2017
This is all so true. My aunt has a service dog and she follows all 10 of these. It’s very hard for her at times always having to stop and answer questions and telling people they can’t pet or talk to her dog. It’s hard for me not to talk or pet the dog. It is a lot of work but for her it’s worth it. Please don’t pretend your dog is a service dog just so you can take him places. It’s not fair to the real service dogs that really work for their owner.
Please respect the service dog and owner and let them get on with their day.
N Melo March 8, 2017
After having my SD “Bruce” for almost 5 years now, I can relate to this article. I’m still a bit surprised at how some people believe that it is “fun and easy” having a pet champanion. It is not easy, but super rewarding! I am humbled by Bruce’s duty and service to me. I love and care for him like nothing I have ever experienced. He knows me better than any other living being, and I trust him with my life.
Kathryn Smith March 8, 2017
excellent tutorial — in today’s world of every dog being a ‘SERVICE’ dog, and the owner having no knowledge of the legalities involved — Therapy/Service/Assistant are NOT interchangeable terms – and most dogs are simply COMPANIONS that have some extra training that permits them to visit in-care patients, or that may be well bonded to the owner to alert to panic attacks or other emotional issues. I’m NOT denigrating the value of these dogs – but strongly feel that there should be some standardized criteria before anyone can claim their dog is ANYTHING other than a companion/pet. I frequently assist various rescue groups in identification of purebred appearing dogs in shelters, and behavioral assessments of these dogs – and many times while I am there, I hear potential new owners inquiring of the Shelter staff ” Would this dog be a good Service dog ? ” – when neither the Staff nor the person inquiring have any knowledge of what a real ‘SERVICE’ dog is — nor a Therapy or Assistant dog! Seems that these have become the ‘WORD DU JOUR’ in Dog Speak today – having taken over from ‘MY DOG IS A RESCUE’, it’s now – MY DOG IS A …… DOG !
Just a rant rave because I see so much abuse of not only the ‘word’ but the system itself.
Alex March 8, 2017
So true! Let’s not forget the struggle with those that fake having a service dog. Their dog must be restrained when they see a real calm service dog and you worry that someday the fake service dog will break free and attack your valuable medical necessity.
SuAnne March 8, 2017
Well written! Right up to the point about having to explain your disability to people. Other than your physician, you are not required to respond to anyone asking you what your disability is. If you are working for a company that has instructed you to ask this, tell them they are in violation of FEDERAL LAW. It’s no ones business but yours and your doctors. They can however ask what tasks your Service Dog performs for you. All in all, this article paints a pretty truthful picture.
Melanie March 8, 2017
Oh my goodness! This article is right on! Thanks you so much for writing what I and my hearing service dog go through. Not that I mind it, but as you say, you are never alone, never invisible and second banana to the dog! This came at the right time for me to share with some family members, knowing I am not alone with this. Thank you for a wonderful, honest and helpful article.
Marcia-Dominique Devereaux-Carlson March 8, 2017
EXpertly written document. Everything is so true. I am a retired dog trainer who has had service dogs. My latest is almost 16 and no longer working (she sleeps most of the time). Yes, I have my eyes open for a successor dog that I can train for myself. Which brings up another point – if you get a service dog, once that dog retires from active service you may have a long wait before a successor dog enters your life. And once you do get a successor dog, you may be taking care of two dogs, an elderly retired service dog and your current working service dog. Are you prepared for the hiatus between working dogs and are you prepared for caring for and all the costs associated with having two dogs? And if you are not prepared to have more than one dog at a time, are you prepared to go for potentially years without a working service dog?
Roymond March 9, 2017
I’m suffering from the need to keep up training while just trying to stay ahead of things in life. How I’m going to handle that, I don’t know.
I do have a comment about one specific point: before I had my Bammer, I had trouble talking to people at all. But talking to people about him, what he does for me, how different life would be without him, all comes easily, so hes changed my life in a way I never expected.
He’s also a rarity among service dogs: hes allowed to say “hi” and get petted, because he loves it and it makes his tail turn into a blur — and the faster that tail goes, the less subject I am to anxiety. Just letting him say “hi” once on a shopping trip can make the difference between an anxiety attack over some tiny thing or taking it in stride. And he knows it, too; when I’m tense or slipping into an anxiety episode, he’ll tug on the leash, pointing toward someone, insisting he be allowed to say “hi” so I’ll even out.
Mike Geddry Sr April 5, 2017
Yes constant training is a definite must with SD’s but it can be an adventure for you and your dog. Unlike us humans dogs are constantly recording smells, visual sights, and sounds that trigger their curiosity. Add cats, squirrels, and dogs (that are false SD’S) you have issues that require immediate correction and in some cases protection of your SD.
Currently I am on my third SD (Malamute/Wolf) who has some issues with the above animals. I am trying a new approach to correcting her. I have a small spray bottle that I use to disengage her locked in brain on the distracting animal. A fine mist of water causes her to disengage her locked in brain. I then follow this with my grabbing her snout and in an authoritative firm voice I tell her NO! followed with verbally telling her she was a bad girl. Ronin has been with me now just over 60 days and she knows when she has done something wrong after I correct her. You can bet within a few minutes she will apologize for the offense by licking my hand or face after her whining cry.
I wish you and your SD the best in your life together.
Mike & Ronin
Cherie March 9, 2017
Absolutely spot on, I would like to share this with our new Service Dog applicants, do you mind? It’s like you read my head…
Marcy Clarke March 9, 2017
So TRUE!! This was very well written. I foster and train service dogs with an able body and can relate to each of these points, I can only imagine how much more people with disabilities have to put up with! At the end of the day, it’s so worth it, but really does require extra patience (with both the dogs and people), time, work and tolerance!
AnnaMarie Piatt March 9, 2017
I loved this article. If I might add, you also need to be able to have a person/family willing to take on your dog should something happen to you or your dog needs to retire. Remember that the person who takes on the responsibility has to understand this dog has been with someone 24/7/365 for a long time. A dog that has been working for that long will also get bored and might even be very hard to handle unless they have the right person/place to live out the rest of their lives.
Lisa Petty March 10, 2017
Very good read.
I intend to con’t on ??✨
Thalia Barroso-Tartak March 11, 2017
Thank you for this it’s so true. I was getting followed by children at the store who wanted to pet my SD after I told them, also at the Psyquiatric this woman pet him even when I told her not to do it some people-.-‘
Thalia Barroso-Tartak March 11, 2017
I meant after I told the children not to pet him.
Glen March 14, 2017
This is the first piece I have run across to succinctly discuss these points. Pure awesomeness. I don’t have a SD yet, but I am working toward that this year. I’ll have to owner train from puppyhood, which is fine with me because my disability gives me the time to do it right. This article gives what I already knew another voice, which is very validating. Thank you!!
Anna Sakila March 20, 2017
Thank you for a helpful article. If you don’t mind, I’d like to share with my friends who have been thinking about getting a service dog. Please respect the service dog and owner and let them get on with their day.
Mike Geddry Sr March 22, 2017
Your article is not only well written but also very important for not only the handler but also business owners. I am on my third PTSD Service Dog who like the other two are dedicated partners and soul mates in my 24/7 life. Yes it is true that you become invisible with a service dog. In Ronin’s case it is more so because of her breed (Malamute/Wolf). There are very few Malamutes or Malamute/Wolf dogs here in Central CA. If you can imagine your partner’s physical appearance (she is 5ft 6in on its hind legs @ 100lbs) when we are together. It is like a huge magnet attracting children and adults to her.
As a PTSD Service dog she is in constant never ending training to handle the attention of people and its impact on me. She relies on my emotions and other inputs to determine if I am OK with the attention of strangers. If I tell her that I am not having a good day. She will let people know by a distinctive howl that she is not to be distracted from her responsibilities as my partner.
Likewise I am her protector from the stupidity of people who do not use a leash with their pets or falsely claim their dog is a service dog. Ronin is OK with other dogs unless she is challenged by another dog or a dog charges toward us as it appears to be attacking me or her. Like Sierra and Kayla my previous service dogs she will do what is necessary to protect me from the danger. This requires me to be constantly alert for any situation involving other dogs that could be a problem for us. Every Service Dog handler understands that their partner must have the same committed protection as they give them 24/7.
LNWeaver June 14, 2017
I never considered how a dog must always be near you to function. It makes sense that it’d need to behave like that if you needed the dog to notice your insulin or make up for your senses. My grandma hasn’t been going outside as much since his blindness started getting worse. I’ve been talking to him about a seeing eye dog.