Deciding to partner with a Service Dog is a huge decision. Your life will be forever changed. Many of these changes are for the better, but having a Service Dog can also make life harder! Here are some of the most important things that we’ve learned throughout the years, that you should know before getting your Service Dog.
1. Service Dogs are Still Dogs (Not Robots)
Service Dogs are highly trained and dependable in a variety of situations, but they are still dogs. Living breathing animals. They can have accidents. It’s considered a rite of passage for your service dog to pee, poop or throw up in public, usually at the worst time. Luckily, other people are understanding, but you need to be prepared for this possibility.
Service Dogs can also have bad days where they may act up, not listen as well, get distracted or otherwise. Depending on how badly they’re acting, you might need to leave them at home and/or stay home yourself.
Your dog will also probably get sick at some point. They may require veterinary care and it’s vital that you are financially prepared for that situation. You’ll also need to plan for how you will cope and manage while your Service Dog is out of commission. Discuss with your doctor some other tools that you can utilize to get you through that time.
2. Training Never Ends
Keeping your Service Dog on point and sharp is an ongoing responsibility. “Use it or lose it” applies in this case. Whether your dog is from a professional program or you are an owner trainer, you’ll still need to hold regular training sessions to be the best team you can be.
Training is a wonderful way to exercise your dog’s mind, burn off energy and prevent boredom or destructive behaviors. Training is also really fun! The bond and communication between handler and service dog will benefit from some training every day, even if for only 5 minutes.
3. Service Dogs Are Expensive
Both owner training and program dogs can be very expensive. A lot of time and effort goes into the raising and training of these dogs. There are some programs that offer dogs for free or help with fundraising, but this isn’t always the case.
Don’t forget that the expenses continue even when your dog is fully trained. Your Service Dog depends on you to keep them healthy and in tip top condition. This requires a high quality food, veterinary care (emergencies too!), grooming, training and other supplies. Even though it isn’t required, most handlers have a lot of fun picking out gear for their dogs and this too can cost a lot of money.
4. People Will Be Very Curious (At Best)
People aren’t used to seeing dogs in public. Especially inside grocery stores, malls, hospitals and some other places that pets aren’t always allowed. Many people absolutely love dogs, some don’t like dogs at all. Some people are afraid of dogs and others are allergic.
You’ll need to be prepared for these people wanting to interact with you and your dog. For the most part, folks are simply curious and want to know more. Service Dogs bring a lot of joy and the general public may have never seen a dog that is so highly trained. It really is amazing!
Sometimes these people will be children, or the elderly or even others with disabilities. They may try to pet your Service Dog, climb on them, throw things, yell, scream, make kissy noises and hand gestures, or even try to feed your dog.
It is also possible that you will encounter some individuals with a less than positive opinion of you and your Service Dog. They may say negative things about you, quietly or loudly. I have heard accounts of people having had the leash taken out of their hands, carts shoved at their dog and people screaming at them. Luckily this is much more the exception than the rule, but it does happen.
5. Service Dogs Are Not a Cure
It’s easy to think that once you have your Service Dog at your side, everything will be better. You’ve waited this long, maybe 2 years or more, and the time is finally here. Yes, having a Service Dog can change your life. Your SD can open doors for you (literally!) that weren’t previously available to you. Perhaps you weren’t able to leave the house on your own, but now that is a possibility.
A Service Dog isn’t a magical fix. In fact, it sometimes makes life much harder. Everything takes more time, you’ll have to deal with constant attention, you are now responsible for another life and all that goes with it. If you have mobility troubles how will you exercise your dog? If you have social anxiety how will you handle the general public staring and talking about you? These are important points to consider.
Don’t dismiss the importance of having other tools in your toolbox of healthcare. You cannot forget that Service Dogs are still animals and things can happen. If you put all of the responsibility of keeping you well on your dog, you will likely run into issues at some point.
If for some reason your dog needs a break it will be difficult for you to give them the time and space they need if your whole life depends on them. When your Service Dog becomes ill or injured you will need to be able to put their needs before your own and allow them to rest and heal. Even still, some places are not safe to bring a dog and you will have to manage without them. As much as we don’t want to consider it, your Service Dog will pass away at some point. If it is sudden, you could be left with a really terrible situation, especially combined with the emotional stress.
What will you do if one of those situations arises? A Service Dog is simply one part of a good care plan. Whether it’s medication, counseling, physical therapy, diet, exercise, or something else, you should explore as many treatment options as you can and figure out what works for you. Be prepared for the times when your dog cannot or should not be working.
6. You Represent the Service Dog Community
When you become a Service Dog team, you also become an ambassador for the Service Dog Community as a whole. In some cases you might be the first or even only Service Dog team a person will ever see. Businesses, other dog owners, potential Service Dog handlers, children and others will be watching you and learning from your actions, what a Service Dog is and does.
In the United States, we are blessed to be protected by laws that make having a Service Dog very accessible to those who need them. We enjoy very generous access rights. If we want it to stay that way we need to hold ourselves to the absolute highest standards possible. Let’s not give any governing body a reason to step in and restrict our freedoms.
Conduct yourself in as professional a manner as possible. Keep your dog clean and well groomed. That includes gear if you choose to use it. Ensure that your Service Dog’s behavior is absolutely above reproach. If you aren’t quite there or an issue comes up, please work with a trainer or a behaviorist. This is extremely important both for your safety and that of the people around you. When necessary and appropriate, educate those who need it. You will be doing your fellow handlers a huge favor.
7. Be Prepared for Access Challenges
Unfortunately, not everyone knows the laws regarding Service Dogs. This can cause issues when trying to enter businesses with your dog. These access challenges can range from quick and easy to a long and traumatic experience that could involve law enforcement and even going to court. Be prepared for this.
The most important step you can take is to know the laws and your rights. Read the Federal Laws, your State Laws, housing, flying, work and any other laws that apply to your situation. Read them again. Take notes and make sure your support system knows the laws as well. If you encounter a situation, having someone who can step in and back you up will make a huge difference. Practice what you might say in front of a mirror so you are as prepared as possible.
It can be helpful to either buy or make your own business cards that have the laws and other helpful legal resources printed on them. Sometimes showing these to people who are questioning you can defuse the situation. Print out the ADA Service Animal FAQs and the laws and keep them in your purse or your dog’s vest pocket.
Access disputes can be really scary, especially if you are prone to anxiety or your disabilities involve communication difficulties. It’s important to stay calm. Some people use their phone to record what is happening. However, this is often seen as confrontational by the other person and may escalate the situation. In a number of states, all parties to the conversation must be notified that they’re being recorded before you start, lest you run afoul of felony wiretapping laws. An alternative to recording is taking notes immediately afterwards about what was said and who was involved, including date, time, and location. Calmly recite the laws and if at all possible educate the other party. If the police are involved, cooperate with what they say. If the situation cannot be resolved in the moment, be sure to report it to the DOJ afterwards and follow up so other handlers don’t have to go through the same thing.
8. You Are Not Required to Carry an ID or Other Proof
In their Service Animal FAQ the DOJ explicitly says that no special registration or ID is necessary for Service Dog handlers to be granted public access:
“No. Covered entities may not require documentation, such as proof that the animal has been certified, trained, or licensed as a service animal, as a condition for entry. *There are individuals and organizations that sell service animal certification or registration documents online. These documents do not convey any rights under the ADA and the Department of Justice does not recognize them as proof that the dog is a service animal.”
It can be tempting to purchase a service dog ID from Amazon just to make your life easier. Some businesses don’t know better and might request such an ID. The proper protocol in this situation is to politely inform them of the laws and if they insist, show them the copy of the ADA FAQs that you’ve printed out or have bookmarked on your phone.
Giving in and showing an ID will make life difficult for any handler that comes after you. The more IDs a business has been shown, the more they believe that this is required. Not to mention, the places that sell these IDs are scams and are helping to spread misinformation about Service Animals. Who wants to support that?? Not me.
9. Service Dogs Can Wear Anything You Want (or Even Nothing At All!)
This is one of the biggest misconceptions that people have concerning Service Dogs. Even many handlers don’t know that their SD is not required to wear any special gear, whether it be a harness, vest, patches or otherwise. It’s true that it can make life easier and lets those around you know from afar that your dog is working and not to be bothered. Key word: can. Many people seem to have vest/patch blindness and will attempt to pet or distract your dog no matter how many neon signs you have on their gear.
What you choose to put on your Service Dog is purely up to you. Some programs may have rules about what they want their dogs to wear, but other than that it’s the handler’s preference. I personally dress my Service Dog as professionally and cleanly as possible, with just a couple of very clear and readable patches and not much clutter. Depending on the situation, I will sometimes work my dog “naked”, with no gear at all. This is perfectly legal and doesn’t lessen the legitimacy of my dog whatsoever.
Other handlers like to express themselves via special patches, or even dye their Service Dog like a work of art! In my opinion, this is likely to draw extra attention, but if that’s your thing, go for it! As long as it’s safe and you are using gear that is appropriate for your dog (no mobility harnesses for small dogs etc), the only limit is your imagination.
10. A Service Dog is Not Always the Best Option
Just as a Service Dog isn’t a cure, it isn’t always the best choice for mitigating your disability. I can’t emphasize how important it is to have a healthcare professional and an experienced trainer involved when you are making the decision to get a Service Dog. These two people can help determine whether the pros of an SD outweigh the cons for you and if a dog can be trained to mitigate your specific disabilities.
While dogs can be trained to do many things and will push themselves past what is healthy to please us, that doesn’t mean we should ask them to. Yes, you might be able to find a giant breed dog that is large enough to brace you, but a cane, walker or wheelchair might be the better option. No matter how large a dog is, putting pressure on their body in a way like bracing can seriously shorten their working life and lead to health problems down the line.
On the flip side, a Service Dog is not always the best option for some disabilities. For example, if you have social anxiety, even if a dog can be trained to alert to your anxiety or provide pressure to help you ground yourself, the attention that comes with bringing a dog everywhere might exacerbate your condition more than is worth it.
11. Activities Will Take More Time
Going out with a Service Dog is akin to going out with a young child. A quick trip to the grocery store will no longer exist. You’ll need to dress your dog (vest, shoes, etc), hopefully give them a quick brush down, make sure they’ve pottied and load them into the car. That’s the easy part!
Chances are you’ll be stopped by curious passersby when running your errands. What would normally be a 5 minute trip to get milk could easily turn into a 30 minute excursion filled with questions, comments, oohs and aaahs about “What a cute puppy!”. “Can I pet your dog?” “What’s wrong with you?” etc. Checking out will take twice as long because the cashier will undoubtedly strike up a conversation.
Of course, this is if you’re lucky and don’t run into any access problems or other issues. Make sure if you decide to get a Service Dog that you plan for any outings to take at least twice as long.
12. It’s Your Job to Protect Your Dog
Just like your Service Dog helps to keep you safe (in the medical sense, not by being protective), it’s your responsibility to keep them safe.
This means dressing them in protective gear when the weather or situation calls for it. This could be special boots, doggy eyewear, or a coat. When traveling you’ll need to use a safety harness or sturdy crate to protect your Service Dog in the event of an accident.
You need to be on the lookout for animals or people that could harm your dog. If a strange dog comes racing up to your Service Dog, you need to be prepared to keep them out of harms way. Keep an eye out for dangerous plants or debris that could be fatal if ingested. If your dog isn’t trustworthy when home alone, keep them safe by utilizing a crate.
Be sure that you are using gear that is appropriate for your dog and fitted correctly. Some training devices can restrict movement and cause damage to your Service Dog’s joints. Double check that any tasks you are asking your dog to perform are safe for their size and build.
Our Service Dogs will push themselves far past their capacity as far as what is safe and healthy. They want to please us and don’t understand the consequences of their actions. One of the wonderful things about dogs is that they are selfless and devoted, and we have to be sure not to take advantage of that. It’s our job as responsible handlers to put the needs of our Service Dog’s first.
13. Keep Your Service Dog Fit
If you want your dog to live a long and healthy life, it’s important to keep them lean and fit. Service Dogs put more strain on their bodies than the average pet dog so fitness is paramount. You absolutely can not do any sort of mobility work with a Service Dog that is overweight. Being even a little bit overweight leads to a higher chance of injury, illness and a shorter lifespan.
Depending on your disabilities, exercising your SD can prove difficult, but you have to find a way. You can incorporate exercise into your training sessions, even if you are stuck in bed. Teach your dog to retrieve and have them bring you items from around the house. Play fetch from the couch. You can do body awareness exercises in a very small amount of space and they will also help with your public access work. If necessary, you can even hire a dog walker to exercise your Service Dog.
14. Only an Elite Few Have What it Takes
Being a Service Dog is a very demanding job. It isn’t just a matter of being pretty well behaved in public and making their handler feel better by being around. A Service Dog must have the temperament and training to be reliable in absolutely every situation they may encounter.
If a small child runs up and grabs a Service Dog in the face, they must be able to tolerate it and not be phased. An SD needs to be able to focus completely on their handler with hot bacon cooking nearby or if a dog in heat is in the vicinity. If their handler becomes unconscious they should maintain their training and be 100% trustworthy.
A Service Dog must remain calm and focused even when their handler is in the midst of a meltdown. It is common to misinterpret a dog’s anxiety for an “alert”, “concern” or magically being born knowing how to make it better. A Service Dog’s response to their handler’s emotional state should be a trained task and not an emotional reaction of their own.
Even dogs that have been purposefully bred and handpicked through generations to become Service Dogs have a high washout rate. This should tell you a lot. Be sure to enlist the help of a behaviorist and/or service dog trainer to help you choose your own dog to train for this work. Don’t “let the dog pick you”, “go with your gut” or leave it to chance. The odds are not in your favor.
15. Having a Service Dog is Hard
Hopefully from reading this article, you are now realizing that having a Service Dog is not easy. It is exhausting. Especially if you are choosing to train your own SD.
You will have to deal with potty training, puppy biting, jumping, taking your dog to training classes and out to socialize them. Service Dogs are expensive and bring with them attention from the public and access challenges. It will take you far longer to complete any errands. Service Dogs are dogs and you will probably have to clean up messes and be embarrassed by them in public.
If you have physical limitations you will still need to find ways to exercise and care for your dog in order to keep them as healthy as possible. I’ve know quite a few individuals that have been injured while owner training their giant breed dog to assist them with mobility. Having and training a Service Dog is physically demanding.
Service Dogs are a LOT of work. Don’t fool yourself into thinking otherwise.
16. You May Not Bond Immediately (and That’s OK!)
Are you instantly friends with every person you meet? Didn’t think so. Relationships take time and this applies to Service Dog teams also. Don’t be disappointed if it’s not smooth sailing from the get go. It’s possible for the bonding process to take up to a year!
Whether you are starting with a puppy prospect or getting a fully trained adult dog, take time to get to know each other. Training sessions can make a huge difference. Keep the pressure off and gradually move forward at a pace that fits your relationship. What works for one team may not apply to the next. Don’t rush! Learn each other’s body language, routines and how to communicate effectively. Taking the time from the start to build a strong foundation will greatly improve your chances of success and will forge a strong partnership.
17. Educate Yourself (and Others)
Information is power. You can’t exercise your rights if you don’t know what they are. Many people believe that the laws governing the use of Service Animals in the United States need to be changed to help cut down on “fakers”. What these folks don’t realize is that the issue isn’t the laws, it’s that people don’t even know what they are! They are sadly lacking in education in this area.
Education is our most powerful tool. The majority of issues, from what I’ve seen, aren’t due to maliciousness and intent to do harm. People just don’t know. They are very willing to learn though! Whenever I’ve had the opportunity to teach someone about Service Dogs I’ve been met with surprise and gratefulness. For the most part, folks are so thankful to finally know and understand the laws. If you are able, take the time to educate those you come in contact with and you will be giving them as well as other handlers a great gift. Feel free to direct them to our All About Service Dogs article where they can learn everything they need to know.
18. Need Before Breed
When choosing a Service Dog prospect, breed is a huge factor. Breeds have been selected for generations to amplify specific traits for specific jobs. Whether it be aloofness, retrieving, swimming ability, herding instinct, protectiveness or otherwise, these traits will show through in the end.
You must not get sucked into choosing a prospect based on looks or color or whichever breed is your “favorite”. Above all a Service Dog needs to mitigate your disability. They need to possess the necessary traits to work in public and handle all sorts of situations.
Even though the zippy sports car looks great and is impressive, it wouldn’t be the right choice for a family with 4 young children. A Belgian Malinois might look impressive and sound fun to train, but is not a good choice for a disabled individual with little training background that is stuck in bed most of the day. An Australian Shepherd or German Shepherd might be gorgeous and very in tune with their handler, but they aren’t the best choice for those prone to anxiety or psychiatric disabilities.
Choose a dog that meets your needs as a Service Dog above all else. If they also happen to be a breed that you love, great! If not, that’s ok. Rest assured that you are making the right choice for your health and wellbeing.
19. Owner Training is Risky
The majority of Service Dogs being owner trained will wash out, there’s no getting around it. If you choose to go the owner training route you must plan for washing out 2 of every 3 prospects (maybe more?). Perhaps you’ll be lucky and be successful with the first dog you choose to train, but it could also go the other way: investing everything into multiple dogs, going through the entire process and experiencing the heartache of having to start all over again before finally finding “the one”.
There are no guarantees with owner training. It’s not less expensive either, it can be much more expensive than a program! While a (reputable) program will absorb the wash outs and career change dogs so that each handler ends up with a fully trained dog in the end, this just doesn’t happen in owner training.
Don’t make the decision to owner train lightly. You must approach the choice from a practical standpoint rather than a romantic one. Your life could depend on it.
20. Slow is Fast
Whether you are training your own service dog or getting a fully trained dog from a program, take it slow. Everyone wants to rush out immediately and start taking their Service Dog/prospect everywhere they go. It’s easy to mistake subtle body language that indicates stress (sleeping, yawning, being still or stiff, etc) as signs of being relaxed. I’ve seen it again and again.
Take the time to set firm foundations. It isn’t a race. Most dogs that are puppy prodigies end up burning out or developing behavioral problems that lead to early retirement. Learn to be patient and take some time to build your relationship. If you have a puppy, let them be a puppy. Taking a year or more to really solidify the basics will reward you with a decade of successful partnership.
21. Some People Won’t Approve
Finally receiving your Service Dog or prospect can be one of the most exciting times in your life. It would be easy to assume that this joy applies to everyone around you as well. While this might be true, it sadly isn’t always the case.
Just as it can be difficult to empathize with chronic illness/pain/injury if you are healthy, not everybody understands the positive life change that a Service Dog brings to their disabled handler. They may only see the attention that a dog brings when you are with them in public, or the extra “hassle” they cause when doing any activity. If anyone in your life has allergies to dogs, that obviously brings its own challenges.
You might find that you lose some of your “old” friends or become uninvited to family events if you want to bring “the dog” with you. This can be an extremely painful thing to go through. Obviously you will need to decide what is best for you and your situation. Which battles are worth fighting.
The people that matter will love and accept you, Service Dog and all. If a Service Dog is truly what is best for your health, you must learn to develop somewhat of a thick skin and stand up for yourself. Your wellbeing comes first, even when those around you can’t understand that.
22. There Will Be Doubts
As with any partnership, you will go through ups and downs with your Service Dog. If you are owner training and raising your own prospect you will need to contend with your dog’s adolescence. In dealing with negative attention and access disputes you will wonder if it’s all worth it.
Sometimes the benefits of having the assistance of a dog don’t outweigh the downsides. Sometimes they do and a Service Dog is the right choice for you. This needs to be given a great deal of consideration before starting the journey. Either way, know this: you aren’t alone.
Every disabled individual with a Service Dog has experienced doubts. I personally can’t count how many times I’ve wanted to give up and I know countless others that have been there too. When you’re in the middle of that dark place it’s vital to have the support of those around you. That could come from family, friends, other handlers (in person or online), or a trainer/behaviorist.
Try not to make any big decisions without the council of a trained professional. They can help you remove emotion from the equation and make an informed choice based off of experience and years of study. In the meantime, lean on those that love and care about you. You aren’t in this alone.
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