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.