Getting a Service Dog: What You Need to Know

As world-renowned wildlife activist Roger Caras so eloquently said: “If you don’t own a dog, at least one, there is not necessarily anything wrong with you, but there may be something wrong with your life.” Dogs are some of the best friends that you could ever ask for: They are unconditionally loyal, have an endless supply of love to share, and are so happy to see you that you can’t help but smile at that wiggling butt.

Service dogs are especially amazing dogs. These super-good boys and girls are trained to help people with disabilities in more ways than one. In fact, there are probably service dogs that have jobs you weren’t even aware of before — and in the United States alone, there are about 500,000 service dogs standing by to help you! If you’re about to be lucky enough to have a new furry companion to help you out, here are the most important things you should know first.

You Must Meet Certain Criteria Before You Qualify

Obviously, the person (or people) who should understand your medical needs the best is your primary care specialist. Speak to your doctor about your specific disability and whether or not it allows you to qualify; as we said before, service dogs can help with a wide range of medical conditions. Some of the most common way that service dogs can help their people include:

  • Working as seeing eye dogs for people with eye conditions
  • Grief counseling and support dogs for people living with emotional or psychological diagnoses
  • Alerting other humans and retrieving medication in case of a medical emergency

If you think that you fall under one or several of these categories, speak to your medical provider. However, there are other criteria that you must also meet beyond a disability diagnosis:

  • Age restrictions apply to qualify for a service dog. You must be at least 12 years old, unless a dog is needed for a younger child with autism. (Those kiddos can be between six and 12 years old to qualify, the lucky ducks.)
  • You must be able to dedicate daily time to work and train your service dog. This means that you must be cognitively and physically able to actively participate in training for up to an hour every day. This also applies to your ability to handle and command service dogs.
  • Although service dogs are workers, they are still doggos after all! Remember that your good boy or girl is more than your service dog, he’s also an animal who needs love and attention — not to mention physical care like walking and feeding. You must be able to take care of your service dog just as well as he takes care of you.
  • Your home must be stable, without other dogs in the house. This one might be kind of a bummer, especially if you already have a dog or two, since it disqualifies you from the program. However, any pet besides dogs — fish, pony, cat, hippopotamus — is perfectly fine.

As we said earlier, children with autism fall into slightly different criteria. Service dogs can help children with their emotional needs at a much earlier age than 12, but there are other needs that must be met for children to qualify:

  • Children must be between the ages of six and 12 and enrolled in an ongoing education program (public or private school, homeschool, etc). Additionally, children must also be enrolled in some kind of occupational, recreational, physical, or speech therapy program.
  • Strong family support is essential in service dogs’ families. Dogs acting as emotional support dogs for children with autism are as full of love as you would expect; they will thrive best in a loving home with lots of healthy support.
  • An adult over 18 who acts as the primary guardian of the child must not only reside in the home but act as a facilitator for the dog. This adult will be responsible for daily training and commands if the child is nonverbal or otherwise unable to do so.
  • Like above, no other dogs can live in the home. Also like the above, anything other than a dog is okay.

Remember: Your Service Dog Isn’t a Replacement for Professional Care

We could easily make the argument that dogs are the best healers of all, but don’t think that you no longer need the help of a licensed doctor anymore because of your service dog. While they help heal your heart and your soul, it is vital that you continue to seek services with your regular doctors and follow up on appointments and specialized services. Plan to continue your regular wellness plan, including rehabilitation services, medications, and whatever other appointments you have.

Service dogs are not meant to replace your professional care by any means, but they are meant to enhance it. For example, if you live with epilepsy and have a seizure, specially trained service dogs can help to fetch your medication or know how to alert somebody in case you can’t. They are a tool in your wellness plan, not a fix-all.

Service Dogs Need to Be Treated Like Any Other Dog

If you have seen a group of service dogs in training, then you know that they are hard workers with hours upon hours of learning experience behind them. Aside from the special training, though, service dogs really are like any other dog: They need to play, eat healthy meals, and like you, need regular check-ups and doctor’s visits.

You don’t want just anybody handling your furry friend, so ask around to your friends and family to find which local veterinary clinic is the highest recommended in your area. Look to the internet for reviews as well, and pay attention to them. Since your dog can’t talk to you, you want to make sure that it’s as professional behind the scenes as it is upfront. Gauge your gut and listen to it; if you feel like the people you’re dealing with are not giving you a warm fuzzy feeling, don’t trust your dog to them.

You might also look for a traveling vet in your area. These professionals are licensed veterinarians, the only difference is that they come to you instead of the other way around. This can be especially beneficial to people who have limited transportation or are unable to drive. Not only that, but it allows service dogs to be comfortable in their home environment during the checkup. Most traveling vets perform nearly all the same services as on-site vet clinics, including:

  • Prescriptions and medications, including special meds for allergies and arthritis and vaccinations.
  • Drawing blood and bloodwork (actual bloodwork might have to be done offsite in a lab, though).
  • Dental care: Tooth brushing, pulling rotten teeth, etc.

Again, take care of your service dog the same way that he will take care of you. He’s got your back and emotional wellbeing at heart, so be as kind to him as he is to you!

Training: Do You Have to Train Your Service Dog?

Well before service dogs are deployed to anybody in need, rest assured: The heavy lifting part of the training is already completed. Service dogs go through a rigorous training program that includes learning commands, ignoring potential distractions like toys and other animals, and understanding signs of human distress, and properly responding to them.

However, as the saying goes: If you don’t use it, you lose it. Your dog must be worked with every day for a minimum of an hour to maintain its training and keywords commands; a well-worked service dog is a prepared service dog, ready and willing to help you as soon as the need arises.

Service Dog Fostering

Even if you don’t have a disability, there are still ways for you to interact with service dogs. Plenty of programs offer puppy fostering for service dogs in training, giving families the opportunity to raise a puppy for the first few months of its life before letting the professionals take over.

Service puppy fostering is not exactly like fostering any other puppy, though; if you want to foster an in-training service dog, you must be committed to working with it and teaching the basic commands. This is a great experience for you and the family; you learn what it’s like to train a service pup, and your family gets to experience the joys of owning a puppy without actually “owning” it.

For this reason, you should be very aware first and foremost that fostering a puppy is an emotional undertaking. It’s easy to fall in love with these amazing little dogs who will grow up to be superheroes. If you’re a soft-hearted individual who has a hard time letting go, remember that puppy fostering is not for the faint of heart.

Can My Dog Qualify as a Service Dog?

We all believe that our dog is the best one (and we’re all correct), but not all dogs have what it takes to work as a service dog. Under the Americans with Disabilities Act, there are special requirements that constitute separate a dog from a service dog:

A service dog is defined as a dog that has been individually trained to do work or perform tasks for an individual with a disability. The task(s) performed by the dog must be directly related to the person’s disability.

This means that, even if your dog is an emotional support, therapy, or comfort dog, it does not qualify as a “working” service dog. These kinds of dogs do have special training that is different from a normal house pet, but since they do not actively “work” within the scope of your disability, they are not actually considered working service dogs.

However, all dog breeds can be trained to be service dogs. Yes, all dog breeds, from chihuahua to Great Danes. You likely are most familiar with retrievers as working dogs, but the main reason is that retrievers are easy to train thanks to their intelligence and eagerness to please their humans. So long as your dog can withstand the training that is required to pass superhero school through a reputable agency, you can turn your pet into a working dog.

Note that even puppies who were born into litters of service dog hopefuls don’t all pass training. Just like humans, dogs all have completely different personalities and alas, were not all destined to work as service dogs. What works for one might not work for the other, even if they share a set of parents. Dogs that pass service training must be ready to serve at any given time, overcoming obstacles like:

  • Shyness or fear of other humans or animals. A dog that is too timid to respond to commands from another human, or who does not interact well with other animals, is at risk of failing. They must be comfortable around audiences of all kinds since all life circumstances are different.
  • Instincts to hunt or chase after smaller dogs or animals. Disney’s Up gave the world the term “SQUIRREL!!” for good reason; big dogs that were bred to hunt (specifically hounds, retrievers, and pointers) tend to get distracted when they see smaller animals running around. Dogs that can stay focused on the task at hand (at paw?) while avoiding giving into their most basic instincts are prime candidates for service dog school.
  • Ignoring commands. Very young or new trainees are expected to take a little while to learn commands, but the ones that are just plain stubborn and ignore commands? Those are the ones that will flunk out of puppy school and be put up for adoption. It’s okay guys, they don’t deserve you anyway!

Who doesn’t admire service dogs? Not only are these good doggies cute and sweet, but they’re hard-working individuals who enjoy doing their jobs and serving their humans. If you’re an American with a disability, consider asking your healthcare provider what it would take for you to bring home a service dog. Even without a disability, consider volunteering your home and your heart and welcoming a service dog in training. No matter how you choose to interact with service dogs, it is a rewarding, heartwarming, and noble endeavor to welcome an animal into your home.