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Service Dogs: Companions for Independence

Chantelle has been an animal lover her entire life and is now in a committed relationship with a 4-year-old Toy Poodle, Izze.

Assistance dog in  training

Assistance dog in training

What Can a Service Dog Do?

From the time when the first seeing-eye dog became his handler's companion, the role of service dogs has grown by leaps and bounds. Dogs now assist people in wheelchairs, those with balance problems, autism, post-traumatic stress disorder and other psychiatric disorders, peanut allergies, seizures, low blood sugar, and balance.

What Service Dogs Are Trained for

  • retrieve objects that are out of a person's reach
  • open and close doors
  • turn lights on and off
  • bark for help
  • find a person and lead them to their handler in distress
  • provide comfort to those with autism and find them if lost
  • alert their handler to an impending seizure and get help, if necessary
  • sniff foods to detect the presence of peanuts
  • alert their handler to sounds such as the doorbell and phone

How are Dogs Selected for Service?

Though most service dogs are Golden Retrievers and Labrador Retrievers, any dog, purebred or mixed, can be a service dog if they have the following traits.

Traits of Service Dogs

  • They must be people oriented.
  • They cannot be overly active.
  • They must be confident while being neither dominant nor submissive.
  • They can't require a lot of grooming or have complex healthcare needs.
  • They should be medium-sized. Large dogs are more challenging to take on airplanes, buses, and in restaurants. Small dogs can't do many of the physical tasks required.

Hearing assistance dogs specifically require a different set of traits.

Traits of Hearing Assistance Dogs

  • They too must be people oriented.
  • They must be energetic and willing to work at a moment's notice.
  • Most clients request a dog that is the size of a Shetland Sheepdog or smaller.

The most widely used breeds for hearing assistance are terrier mixes, poodles, Cocker Spaniels, Lhasa Apsos, Shih Tzus, and Chihuahuas.

Many Service Dogs Require 18 Months or More of Training and Cost $25,000

Assistance Dogs

Assistance Dogs

What Training Is Necessary?

Though dogs are trained two hours per day for six months, their handlers also must demonstrate they can control the dog, are committed to providing them with appropriate care, and be committed to continual training of their best friend. Once the six-month training period is complete, the team (dog and handler) must be able to demonstrate the following skills to 90% accuracy both at home and in public.

  • Getting out of a vehicle: The dog must wait patiently while his handler gets organized for their outing. The dog can't wander away or sniff any bystanders.
  • Navigate a parking lot: The owner must show his dog can heel throughout a parking lot and demonstrate awareness and safety around moving vehicles.
  • Enter a doorway: Enter through a doorway in a calm and controlled manner.
  • Heel throughout the building: Must not wander off, sniff at passersby, bark, growl or whine.
  • Recall from six feet
  • Sit and down on command
  • Handle noise distraction: The dog may orient to the direction of the noise but should not appear afraid or aggressive.
  • Lay quietly in a restaurant: Barking, whining, growling and sniffing or stealing food is not permitted.
  • Be taken 20 feet away from owner: The dog should be able to see his handler and remain calm and quiet.
  • Load with ease into a vehicle

These are basic skills and do not include specific training related to a person's disability. Additional training would be required to detect seizures or peanuts in food, cross safely at a crosswalk or any other skill which doesn't fit in basic training.

Service dogs are so much more than hired help. A dog and his handler are a team, with all the love and respect that goes with it. The service dog assists his handler to navigate the world and in return, the handler provides love and care.

How Do I Select an Agency to Provide My Service Dog?

There are many service dog agencies out there. Some agencies provide dogs for free and have long waiting lists. Other agencies can charge upwards of $25,000. So how do you know if you are dealing with a quality agency? Here are some questions you can ask to put your mind at ease.

Questions to Ask About Service Dogs

  • What breeds of dogs do you train?
  • Are there any age requirements?
  • Where do you get your dogs?
  • What temperament do you look for in your dogs?
  • How do you match the dog to the client? Can I choose my own dog?
  • Can I see some of your dogs in training?
  • How many commands do you teach your dogs?
  • What skills does each dog learn?
  • Can you customize your teaching to accommodate a unique disability?
  • Do you provide dogs for adults, children or both?
  • Can you teach a dog to respond to a computerized communication system?
  • Do you offer a health guarantee? For how long?
  • Who owns the dog?
  • If something should happen to my dog, under what circumstances could I get a replacement dog?
  • How long have you been in business?
  • Do you have a waiting list?
  • How many teams have you graduated?
  • Do you have a list of references I can contact?
  • What is your fee? Is it due all at once or is there a payment schedule?
  • Do I sign a contract? Can I see it?

You'll also want to consider how willing you are to travel to get your dog. Also, check with your Better Business Bureau for any known complaints.

How Do I Become a Trainer?

Many organizations offer apprenticeship programs that are two to three years long. Not everyone is suited to training a service dog, so before you apply, think about the following:

  • You must love dogs and training dogs.
  • You must have an interest in helping people. You won't simply be training dogs. You'll be training people to train their dogs.
  • You must be positive, enthusiastic, have good people skills and be a team player.
  • You must gain some knowledge of a variety of disabilities.
  • You must be patient, creative and flexible. You will be working with people who may not be able to move well, know how to motivate their dog, correct their dog, or sometimes even understand your instructions.
  • You must be in it for the long haul. You are also a part of the team and will be expected to troubleshoot and provide additional training for 10 years.
  • The most important attribute of a good trainer is not simply respecting the dog, but realizing you are there to empower a person with disabilities.

How Do I React If I See a Service Dog?

While the service dog may appear cute and cuddly, he is actually working and should be treated as such. Remember the following tips when dealing with a service dog.

Tips for Dealing With a Service Dog

  • Don't give a command to the dog. Only the owner/handler may give the dog a command.
  • Don't walk along the dog's left side; it is too distracting for him.
  • Don't walk in sync on the right side of the person; stay a few paces back.
  • If the owner appears to need assistance, ask first before doing anything.
  • Never give the dog a snack or treat. Service dogs are taught to ignore food and this will just give him a mixed message.
  • Only pet the dog if the owner says it's okay and then only pat him on the head.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2015 Chantelle Porter


Chantelle Porter (author) from Ann Arbor on August 27, 2015:

That is so nice of you. What a wonderful way to give back. Vets and disabled children need all the help they can get.

Lana Adler from California on August 27, 2015:

Great Hub! Very informative, and this is such an important service for people and kids who need assistance. I'm actually supporting a wonderful organization "4 Paws for Ability" who provide service dogs to kids with disabilities, and to vets. They're in Ohio but I try to spread the word every chance I get :)

Chantelle Porter (author) from Ann Arbor on August 20, 2015:

What a nice thing to do

Deb Hirt from Stillwater, OK on August 20, 2015:

When I lived in DE, I volunteered for Canine Partners for Life in Cochraneville, PA. I socialized a dog at nursing homes.

drbj and sherry from south Florida on August 19, 2015:

Service dogs are, and always have been, very special animals. I have a great deal of respect for them and the skilled people who train them.