If you are new to Service Dogs this article may seem daunting. Believe it or not, this is our “simplified” version of how to get a Service Dog. Basically, it’s not a simple process! For those of you who need a little guidance on what to do and when to do it, this guide should steer you in the right direction.
* These steps are written assuming that you, the reader, are also the prospective handler. If you are caretaker of the disabled individual and/or are researching for someone else, adjust accordingly.
How to Get a Service Dog – Start Here!
- Determine if you have a disability according to the ADA definition. Read this: Do I Qualify for a Service Dog? Diagnosis vs Disability. If YES continue to Step 2. If NO you do not qualify for a Service Dog.
- List the things that you cannot do for yourself, cannot do without difficulty or cannot do safely.
- Can a dog be trained to do any of those items from Step 2 or be trained to help you do those items? (Consult with a trainer if you don’t know) Read this: The Giant List of Service Dog Tasks and this: How to Choose Your Service Dog’s Tasks If YES continue to Step 4. If NO a Service Dog is not the right choice for you (perhaps an Emotional Support Animal would be a good fit?).
- Service Dogs are still dogs. Are you able to care for a dog and will a dog fit into your lifestyle? If YES continue to Step 5. If NO a Service Dog is not the right choice for you.
- Is the disabled individual a young child? Service Dogs should be handled by a person who is mature enough to take on that responsibility unless a parent will serve as the handler (such as in a triad team). Depending on the disabilities, if the child is very young a service dog is probably not the best option. An ESA or a pet dog might be the best choice until the child has a chance to grow and mature.
- See if you can find a local Service Dog team to shadow for an afternoon. This will help you get a good idea of what it’s really like!
- Would a Program trained Service Dog be the best choice for you or would you prefer to owner train your Service Dog? If PROGRAM continue to the Program Dog section. If OWNER TRAINED skip to the Owner Training section.
- Find a Program.
- Apply to Programs.
- Get accepted by a Program for one of their Service Dogs.
- Depending on the cost, raise money if necessary. Can’t raise the money? A Service Dog might not be the right choice for you, they are expensive no matter what.
- Wait to receive your Service Dog. This step could take years. While you wait you should study everything you can about dogs and dog training as well as practice your dog handling skills. Learn the federal and local service dog laws and know them like the back of your hand. Research how to handle any problems that might arise and how to deal with them. This would also be the time to start gathering any supplies you will need for your dog. Research veterinarians.
- When the time comes, participate in Team Training. During Team Training your program will help you and your potential Service Dog learn how to work together.
- Receive your Service Dog. Congratulations!
- It may still take some time for you and your Service Dog to bond. Keep in contact with your Program and follow their directions and instructions on any questions you have. Don’t rush!
- If you’ve made it this far, skip all the way to the finish line: Working As a Full Service Dog Team.
Owner Training – Part 1
- So you’ve decided to Owner Train. Time to build your support system. You’ll need the help of a top-notch trainer, preferably one with experience training Service Dogs or competition obedience. You’ll also want to enlist the support of a behaviorist. Find a veterinarian who you trust. Your doctor should be on board to help you figure out how a service dog can best assist you. The entire process will be much easier with the support of your family and friends if they’ll offer it. Depending on your situation (if you are a minor, live with others or rely on them financially), you might need their support and without it, a Service Dog might not be the best choice for you.
- Decide what age, height, weight, fur/hair type, energy level and personality traits you need your future Service Dog to have. Work with your trainer on this!
- Do you want to get your Service Dog prospect from a responsible breeder or through a rescue/shelter? Refer to this article: Breeder or Rescue: Where to Find Your Service Dog Prospect? If BREEDER jump to the Breeder section. If RESCUE continue to the Rescue/Shelter section.
- Hire a behaviorist and/or an experienced Service Dog trainer to assess potential rescue candidates. Be objective! This is one of the most crucial steps in the process.
- Once you find a prospect do a trial run if at all possible. Many personality traits won’t become clear until the “honeymoon phase” is over. There are some reactions and quirks that you won’t be able to see until the dog is presented with that specific stimulus. Was the trial successful? If YES skip to Owner Training – Part 2. If NO return to Step 1 of this section.
- Choose a breed. The most recommended breeds are labs, goldens and standard poodles. Sometimes rough or smooth collies. If you need to choose a more atypical breed for some reason read this article: Choosing an Atypical Breed for Your Service Dog. Do you struggle with psychiatric disabilities? Read this: Choosing a Breed for Your Psychiatric Service Dog.
- Research specific lines within your breed and familiarize yourself with their genetic history, health problems, drives, work vs show? Etc.
- Choose your breeder. Read this: Choosing a Breeder for Your Service Dog Prospect
- Talk with your breeder and decide which upcoming paring has the best chance of producing the type of prospect that you need. You may also want to discuss any young adult or retired show dogs they have that are looking for homes. If you choose to go with an older dog, skip to Step 6.
- Wait for your candidate to be born! This step could take years. While you wait you should study everything you can about dogs and dog training as well as practice your dog handling skills. Learn the federal and local service dog laws and know them like the back of your hand. Research how to handle any problems that might arise and how to deal with them. This would also be the time to start gathering any supplies you will need for your dog. Research veterinarians.
- Hire a behaviorist and/or experienced Service Dog trainer to assess the litter of puppies or adult dog if you’ve chosen that route. Assessments should always be done by a third party in an unfamiliar area, not by the breeder or yourself. Assessments should not be done earlier than 7 weeks old. Here are some things to keep in mind: What Qualities Should I Look For In a Service Dog Prospect?.
Owner Training – Part 2
- Commit to a dog as your prospect.
- Establish your new routine and begin the process of fitting your new dog/puppy into the household. Make sure to discuss the rules with other members of your household. You’ll want everyone to be consistent with training and boundaries.
- Depending on the age of your dog, you’ll need to work on socializing your prospect to many new sights, sounds, smells, surfaces, people, places, animals and so on. Work with your trainer to do this safely and at your dog’s pace. Taking your prospect everywhere with you is NOT the answer.
- Work with your trainer on Basic Life skills such as no biting, potty training, crate training, no jumping, only chewing on appropriate toys, handling skills, grooming, trading items and so on.
- Attend group training classes and work with your trainer on Basic Obedience skills such as loose leash walking, focus, sit, down, stay, leave it and so on.
- Next, you’ll want to work through Advanced Obedience skills with your group classes and private trainer. This might be working up to the CGC, CGCA, and CGCU or even more advanced competition obedience classes.
- Once your SDiT is solid in Basic Skills, Basic Obedience and Advanced Obedience it’s time to begin Public Access Training. Learning how to behave in public places can be the hardest part of a Service Dog’s training and depends a lot on their maturity level. Go slow and work closely with your trainer.
- Last but not least is Task Training. Technically task training can be started at any age, depending on the task. Many task foundations can be started as puppies such as retrieving and DPT. Any training that requires weight bearing or involves mobility work needs to hold off until growth plates are closed and the dog has been assessed by an orthopedic veterinarian. When working on tasks consult with your trainer as well as your doctor/specialists/physical therapists/occupational therapists/etc to fine tune things and make sure you’re on the right track.
- If at any point in this process you run into problems, you’ll need to consult with your trainer/behaviorist/veterinarian and read this: Washing Out a Service Dog: When to Consider It and How to Cope. If the dog is a washout, go all the way back to the top of this article to Step 5: Program or Owner-Train.
- Made it this far? Continue to the finish line: Working As a Full Service Dog Team
Working As a Full Service Dog Team
Congratulations! No matter how you got here, whether you Owner-Trained or went through a Program. Whether your dog came from a rescue or a breeder. You made it!! Most people who look into getting a Service Dog never make it to this step, no matter how hard they try. This is a huge accomplishment.
Your work doesn’t stop here though. Handling a Service Dog is not an easy fix. Training is a lifelong necessity for a Service Dog and if you want them to stay sharp you’ll need to continuously brush up on tasks and other cues. You may find your needs changing and want to add new tasks in.
It takes a lot of practice and confidence to become comfortable interacting with the public when it comes to your Service Dog. You will probably have at least one access issue come up. You may encounter issues with other pets in stores. There can be unforeseen problems that arise which require the help of your trainer and behaviorist. Service Dogs can wash out of work at any time for a myriad of reasons.
Take it slow and lean on your support system and community when you need to. Having a Service Dog is a huge responsibility, but luckily there are some wonderful resources available to help you on this journey. Good luck!!
- Top 22 Things to Know Before Getting a Service Dog
- Service Dogs: An Insider’s Guide
- Service Dogs: Where to Start?
- Federal Law (ADA) FAQs
- State Laws
- Minimum Standards for Service Dog Programs and Trainers
- Resources: The Absolute Essentials
- The Service Dog Supply List
- Flying With a Service Dog: A Guide for Service Dog Handlers
- The Simplified Guide to Securing Housing with Your Assistance Animal
- Service Dog Infographics
- Access Disputes: How to Handle Them
- Service Dogs: Pros and Cons
- Service Dogs vs Emotional Support Animals vs Therapy Dogs