Before partnering with a Service Dog, there are several important points to consider. While many individuals with a disability benefit greatly from partnering with a Service Dog, it’s definitely not the solution for everyone. If you or a loved one is considering full-time Service Dog partnership, please ask yourself the following 5 questions before making a final decision.
You must know beyond a shadow of a doubt the benefits of partnering with a Service Dog will outweigh the disadvantages before venturing any further down the path of becoming a Service Dog handler.
Before beginning, you must understand there are no wrong answers to these questions – only answers that help you make the best decision for your needs and disability. The questions are designed to help you think and they’re not meant to be answered with a simple “yes” or “no.” Partnering with a Service Dog is a huge step, and every person’s needs, desires, disability, abilities and situations are unique. Each set of circumstances deserves due consideration. However, it’s up to you to be honest with yourself. Frank and candid analysis/examination of you, your needs, your home life, your family and your disability is a requirement for ensuring you’re not making a choice that could set you back or hurt you, your relationships, your independence or the Service Dog community.
Give yourself plenty of time to muse, think and explore your feelings and thoughts concerning partnering with a Service Dog. Don’t make a decision hastily, and try to involve someone you trust in the brainstorming and soul-searching process. You must know beyond a shadow of a doubt the benefits of partnering with a Service Dog, for you, will outweigh the disadvantages. If, at the end of this post and at the end of your self-exploration, you’re not certain a canine partner is for you, it’s probably best to wait before beginning the process.
1) Am I financially able to take on the costs of caring for a dog for 10 to 15 years?
Whether you decide to apply for a Service Dog via an established program or you opt to owner-train your partner, Service Dogs (or any dog, for that matter) are not cheap. The old saying, “there is no such thing as a free puppy,” is completely true.
Costs of Partnering With a Service Dog Via a Program
If you’re applying to an Assistance Dog or Service Dog program, costs can vary widely. There may be application fees, travel, room, and board costs, equipment fees, and then, there’s the actual cost of the dog. Many Service Dog programs charge upwards of $5,000.00 for a dog, and costs of $20,000 or more for extremely specialized or dual-trained Service Dogs are not unheard of. There are very few grants or scholarships available to defray those costs, but fundraising is always an option and if you dig deep enough, you might find some assistance available. Service Dogs of America and the Assistance Dog United Campaign occasionally have Assistance Dog/Service Dog grants and scholarships available. However, you can’t count on receiving assistance, and must carefully consider the costs of each program you interview.
Costs of Owner-Training a Service Dog
If you decide to owner-train a Service Dog partner, you’re responsible for the cost of the dog, all veterinary costs and testing, temperament testing, transport, initial training, advanced training, any necessary titling/certifications (like CGC or C.L.A.S.S. or the ATTS Temperament Test, should you decide to obtain those), all gear and equipment, and any other required supplies throughout the training process, like food, poop bags, medical supplements and other “incidentals.”
Additionally, it’s not as simple as merely getting a dog from a shelter. Service Dogs must possess a specific temperament and trainability in order to succeed at the demanding work placed before them, and not just any dog will do. Finding the right dog for your partner can take months, and oftentimes, the only reliable solution is to obtain a well-bred puppy from a breeder known for producing Service Dogs in their lines. Well-bred Assistance Dog candidates, depending on the breed, can range from $800 to $3,000 dollars in purchase price alone. However, included in that price is the near-certainty that your potential partner is extremely likely to succeed, is physically, mentally and genetically sound and you have breeder support and backup, as well as access to resources, should you need them.
If you obtain a dog from a rescue, you must be CERTAIN he’s been thoroughly temperament tested, socialized, possesses the trainability necessary and is medically sound. Hip and elbow certifications via PENNhip or the OFA is never a bad idea, and should be considered mandatory for any dog who’s going to be doing brace/mobility support or any kind of weight-intensive task work like pulling a wheelchair or carrying heavy loads. On top of basic hip and elbow certifications, you should determine if your rescue dog is free of genetic illnesses common in their breed or breeds. Nothing is more painful or costly than spending thousands of dollars training and bonding with your partner only to find he’s going to be forced to retire years too soon due to genetic, temperamental or structural unsoundness. All in all, it’s not unreasonable to expect to spend $1,500 to $2,000 finding, transporting, testing and vetting a rescued Service Dog candidate, and that’s before any of the training begins!
Training itself can vary widely in costs, but you must include a professional, Service Dog-saavy trainer in your plans, even if it’s only every now and again. Trainers typically charge per class (which can range from $65 to $200 for 4 to 8 week sessions, depending on your location) or per hour (which typically runs $60 to $125, depending on your location).
Finally, are you prepared to accept full financial responsibility for your potential Service Dog for the rest of his life? Whether you’re going to train him yourself or you’re receiving an Assistance Dog from a program, you and you alone are responsible for vetting, quality food, toys, any additional/necessary training, emergencies, working gear, preventative medication (heartworm, fleas/ticks), grooming, joint or other supplements if necessary, bedding/crates/home stuff, doggy proofing, and many, many, many other incidentals. The price adds up quickly, but many trainers and experts estimate costs run between $1,200 and $1,600 a year at a minimum, every year for the rest of your dog’s life, not including initial vetting, testing and purchase. You must be willing and able to fully accept the financial strain of acquiring, living with, training, caring for, loving and partnering with a Service Dog for a period of at least 10-15 years.
2) Are you prepared to care or arrange for care for a dog every single day?
Partnering with a Service Dog is akin to having a toddler. Every day, without fail, your dog must be cared for. This means he’ll need taken out several times a day, cleaned up after, fed a nutritious meal at least once a day, ongoing training maintained or improved, mental or physical exercise/stimulation, groomed if necessary, and treated as a companion and living creature, not merely as a tool or object.
There Are No Exceptions
Service Dogs, like all dogs, are living, breathing animals with unique personalities, needs and requirements. They require constant upkeep and no matter what, you must be prepared to meet their needs. It doesn’t matter if it’s raining, you’re having a “bad day,” there’s 4 feet of snow on the ground, you’re in the hospital or there’s a family emergency — your Service Dog MUST be cared and provided for.
Carefully consider how a Service Dog would fit into your lifestyle and family. They’re not an inanimate piece of equipment that always works flawlessly, and caring for them isn’t always convenient. Nonetheless, even when it’s difficult, hard, or stressful, you must be willing to accept full responsibility for your canine partner at all times. Partnering with a Service Dog can have many advantages, but receiving the full benefit requires a degree of dedication many individuals can’t provide due to their unique situations, busy lives, personality or a plethora of other reasons.
Additionally, you must have plans in place in case of an emergency. What happens if you’re sick? Your Service Dog is ill? You’re unexpectedly hospitalized? You must have back-ups in place to ensure your partner always receives the necessary care.
3) Are you prepared to always be the center of attention?
Working with and partnering with a Service Dog places you smack in the center of the public eye. Everywhere you go, people will stare, point and gawk and you and your canine partner. When partnered with a Service Dog, you will never be invisible. People will stop and engage you in long-winded conversations, ask tons of questions, many of which will be very intrusive or personal, tell you stories about how their dog would be just perfect for this kind of work or how their uncle has a dog JUST LIKE YOURS, except everything is different but the fact they’re both black.
Partnering With a Service Dog Can Be Stressful
Going places will take twice as long, and you must forget about ever being able to “just run in and get out quickly” again. The interruptions will be constant, and at times, downright offensive or rude. People will judge you, especially if you have an “invisible” disability, and you must be prepared to calmly assert your rights and the rights of your Service Dog. Expect a great degree of conflict and to have to educate more people than you ever thought possible.
You will be challenged, denied access and forced to assert yourself for not only your benefit, but that of the entire Service Dog community. You are an ambassador for the whole community, and your Service Dog might be the first people every come into contact with. You must ensure your partner is always presentable, behaving well, on task, and an excellent example of what a Service Dog should be. Partnering with a Service Dog carries responsibilities not only to the dog, but also to every other team in existence who may follow in your footsteps. You must always ensure you and your Service Dog leave an outstanding impression behind you no matter how many times you’re interrupted, challenged, judged or stopped.
If you’re not prepared or you’re unable to accept the stresses that accompany working or training a Service Dog in public and being a constant ambassador/spokesperson, you may wish to consider alternatives to partnering with a Service Dog.
4) Are you willing and able to accept the training and socialization obligations accompanying a Service Dog?
Partnering with a Service Dog is not a “one and done” deal no matter where or how you get your partner. If you receive your Service Dog from an Assistance Dog program, you’re going to have to work very hard to bond with, learn to communicate with, and maintain your partner’s training. If you owner-train a Service Dog, you must accomplish a feat trainers work years to perfect and build training and socialization foundations from scratch, and then maintain them.
Service Dogs possess highly trained, intricate and specialized skills and degrees of training. You must be willing to provide the practice time, boundaries and training to ensure your Service Dog won’t backslide in his training, public access or level of socialization. The more your Service Dog knows or must know in order to work for you and mitigate your disability, the more vital it is that you work on maintaining and enhancing his skills as frequently as possible.
Service Dogs Aren’t Always Perfect
Service Dogs are not robots — you can’t program them and then leave them to run. Sometimes they have bad days, and some days are just truly awful, trying and exhausting. You must be prepared to be mom, dad, teacher, coach, mentor, troubleshooter, judge, jury, principal, friend, partner and sometimes, even an impartial observer. Being too emotionally invested, especially if your Service Dog is struggling or is pushing back, means you likely will miss the real issue and won’t be able to fix it. You have to provide the structure, guidelines and boundaries necessary for your partner to thrive and be able to serve you to the best of his ability.
You must commit to upholding your Service Dog’s training, skills and behavior for the rest of his life, and to be willing to admit when you need professional help.
You cannot be a pushover, and you cannot worry about “hurting his feelings.” Service Dogs must uphold very stringent standards, and sloppy or ill-behaved Service Dogs wreak havoc on the Service Dog community as a whole. You must commit to upholding your Service Dog’s training, skills and behavior for the rest of his life, and to be willing to admit when you need professional help.
Training Service Dogs Requires Specialized Skills
Another consideration concerning training and socialization involves owner-trainers in particular. Professional Service Dog trainers spend YEARS learning to train, socialize, ensure success, document and work with Service Dog candidates, prospects and partners. Not everyone possesses the training background or ability necessary to teach, perfect and hone the behaviors, skills, and tasks required for working Service Dogs, both in and out of the public eye. However, an easy solution for owner-trainers who don’t have the necessary training, documentation or socialization experience is to partner with a professional trainer willing to help guide them on their journey to partnering with a Service Dog.
5) Are you prepared to deal with conflict?
While many people understand there will be access challenges while training, working and partnering with a Service Dog, many individuals are not prepared for the other areas of conflict they will encounter. You must be ready to lose friends or possibly even the support of family members, especially if you have an invisible disability. Not everyone is able to understand WHY you’d need or want a Service Dog and some relationships may suffer.
Additionally, you may encounter strife at work, at school, online and anywhere else you frequent. Business owners with whom you had an excellent relationship with may begin to resent you and your Service Dog, even though they allow you access, as is required by law. You may receive, even though technically illegal, varying degrees of treatment or services ranging from merely rude to outright abusive. You must be able to remain poised, professional and unflustered when faced with conflict.
Are you mentally and emotionally able to not only handle those blows, but to respond professionally, with courtesy and with poise? If not, partnering with a Service Dog may not be the best option for you.
Partnering With a Service Dog: Final Considerations
When it comes right down to it, no one can ask all the right questions. You and you alone know whether or not a Service Dog is right for you and your lifestyle, and at the end of the day, you’re the one who’s going to have to dig deep and accept responsibility for your choices. Service Dogs bring peace, independence, security and a new degree of ability to thousands of people, and if you’re going to be one of them, congratulations, and welcome to the Service Dog community. If you’re not, though, that’s ok — Assistance Dogs are not right for everyone, and we’d even hazard to say partnering with a Service Dog is not right for most people.
We hope to have stirred your thoughts up a bit, though, and helped you to recognize Service Dog partnership isn’t as straight-forward as it can seem.
Are there any questions, considerations or concerns you wish someone had raised with you before you partnered with a Service Dog full time? Is there anything you feel should be added to the list? Chime in with a comment!