Where's the Service Dog Store?
Service dogs can be lifesaving companions; the bond between a service dog and handler is awe-inspiring! But that bond doesn’t come without a lot of hard work and dedication, so be sure to plan ahead before you get a service dog!
There are two main avenues to get a service dog:
1. Professional Service Dog training organizations;
2. Owner-training your own puppy or adult dog from a breeder, shelter, or rescue group.
Each of these avenues have their pros and cons, so let’s take a look at them!
Professional Service Dog Training Organizations
This is the most traditional path to getting a service dog. Whether the organization is nonprofit or for-profit, this is a growing field for dog training, and nowadays organizations are much easier to come by than they were just 10-15 years ago.
Getting a dog from an organization is almost always the best option for people who have never had a service dog before, and who don't have extensive formal experience training dogs.
How do you find a service dog training organization? I recommend starting your search with Assistance Dogs International (ADI). ADI is an accrediting organization which sets standards for how service dog training organizations are run, conducting regular audits to make sure dogs, trainers, clients, and the general public are all kept safe and follow the guidelines ADI sets for its member organizations. You can do a search on ADI’s website, www.AssistanceDogsInternational.org to find accredited service dog training organizations.
It is common for people to limit themselves to a geographical area in searching for a service dog training organization. In fact, many organizations place dogs with recipients nationwide, often with little to no travel requirements for the recipients; sometimes the organization that is farther away from you will end up being the best match for you!
Many service dog training organizations are nonprofits, funded by private donations and grants; there is almost no government funding available for service dog training. While it usually costs a professional organization $20,000-$50,000 to train and place one service dog, many organizations which are funded by donations can place dogs free of charge.
Other organizations require fundraising help from recipients, either by requiring the recipient to fundraise part of the cost of their dog or to volunteer time at the organization’s fundraising events.
Still other organizations will require you to pay the entire cost of training the service dog. You can still do your own fundraising efforts, but the organization will be run more like a business where you “purchase” your fully-trained dog.
Remember there are tradeoffs: the “cheaper” organizations may have longer waiting lists; they also usually state in their contracts that they can “repossess” the dog if he is being mistreated. More expensive options have shorter waiting lists and may not take the dog back once you “purchase” him, even if behavior or health issues eventually crop up.
It is also crucial to determine the organization’s policy for follow-up training and lifetime care of the dog. All dog training requires constant maintenance and all dogs can have training slip-ups, so it is inevitable that in the lifetime of a service dog you will need the support of a trainer to keep him working at the life-saving standard you need. Many organizations offer free training for life, while others charge extra for every training lesson.
You should also ask about the health of the dogs, especially with organizations that require you to purchase the dog. Genetic disorders often don't show up until the dog is middle-aged so it is crucial that the organization health tests all their breeding dogs and the service dogs they place.
Professional organizations usually have certain tasks that they train dogs to do, and they may or may not train outside of that mission. For example, guide dog training organizations train dogs to guide people who are blind; if you have a mobility disability and need the dog to pick up dropped items and open doors for you, the guide dog organization will probably not be able to train a dog for you. Organizations specialize at training certain behaviors and stick within their expertise, so you may need to call around to find one to train the tasks you need.
Training your Own Service Dog
So what if you want to bypass professional organizations altogether and train your service dog yourself?
There are many benefits of training your own service dog. Often you can owner-train a dog you already own, taking out all the stress of bringing a new dog into the household; or, you can choose your own dog based on the breed and personality you really want. You can also bypass rules imposed by service dog organizations, such as training and fundraising requirements. And, training your own dog means you can custom train the tasks that you really need.
The first difficulty of training your own service dog is picking out a dog with the right temperament for the job. Being a service dog is very hard work and it takes a very specific temperament in a dog to be able to do that work. If your dog ends up not having the right temperament to be a service dog, he will have to “wash out” of training and you will have to start over from scratch with a new dog. Temperament tests conducted by an experienced service dog trainer can help you decide if your dog will be able to do to the job, but even at professional organizations, around 50% of candidates wash out; it’s definitely important to consider from the beginning what you will do if your dog ultimately cannot be a service dog.
Whether you get a puppy or an adult dog to train as your service dog, you will need the help of a professional service dog trainer! While there are nonprofit organizations to train a dog to give to you, there are no nonprofits (that I know of) which board and train a dog you already own for little to no cost to you. There are a few nonprofits in the country who help you train your own service dog, but you still have to fit their criteria and do still generally have to travel to their facility about once a week for regular lessons.
To find a service dog trainer, you can search for a professional dog trainer who specializes in and has documented experience with training service dogs. Visit the trainer’s website and make sure that he/she specifically discusses service dog evaluation and training experience; a formal education in dog training and specifically service dog training is essential, since evaluating and training service dogs is a specialized skill much different than other types of dog training.
Ways to Get a Service Dog:
No matter how you get a service dog, it will be a lot of work and a big commitment for you and your whole family! Doing extra research in the beginning will definitely pay off in the long run when you have your dream companion at your side.
Click here for more information about Service Dog Training with Alabama Dog Academy!
And don't forget to read Service Dog Training: Part 3 to learn more about the laws surrounding service dogs in public!
Elizabeth Morgan, trainer and owner of Alabama Dog Academy, and proud trainer of Harper, the Canine Advocate at the Limestone Child Advocacy Center.