Do You Train Service Dogs?

bernese mountain dog is pet on the head

Every so often I’ll receive an inquiry from a person about whether or not Maplewood Dog will help them train their service dog.  To begin, let’s start with a few clarifying definitions:

black retriever guide dog leading his handler down a brick sidewalkService Animal:  In the USA, a service animal is a dog (with some exceptions for mini horses) that is trained in demonstrable tasks to mitigate their handler’s documented disability and also trained in skills to be safe and unobtrusive in a public setting (ie be a reasonable accommodation).  Service animals are permitted to accompany their handler into place of business that would otherwise not allow dogs.  More Q&A facts about service dogs from  Link: What’s it Like to Be a Service Dog?

Therapy Animal: In the USA, a therapy animal is often a dog (but not always, any animal can be trained as a therapy dog such as cats, rabbits, horses, etc) that works with their (usually) able bodied handler in a therapeutic setting for others.  The animal is expected to be trained in basic manners and safety social skills and has passed some type of therapy assessment and is usually covered under the assessing organizations insurance.  Therapy animals are not permitted to accompany their handlers into places of business that are not pet friendly, with the exception of the location where the animal is doing a therapy visit.  For example:  a therapy animal goes with their handler to a local nursing home to visit the residents.  The nursing home allows the therapy dog when they would otherwise wouldn’t allow pets in.  After the therapy visit at the nursing home, the handler needs to go to the grocery store.  The therapy dog would not be allowed in the grocery store with the handler.

Emotional Support Animal (ESA): In the USA, emotional support animals are a pet (can be a dog, cat, rabbit, etc) that is owned by a person with mental health disability and allowed to live in non-pets housing with that person with reasonable accommodation documentation from a medical provider.  Generally the ESA must abide by size or other requirements set by the housing facility or apartment management.  Emotional Support Animals are not permitted to accompany their handler in to places of business that do not allow pets.  Example: a handler could take their ESA to a pets allowed pet store, but not into the grocery store where pets are not allowed.  When a dog is an emotional support animal, the dog is expected to be house trained and often it is beneficial for the dog to have some basic manners skills, such as trained to the canine good citizen level.

At Maplewood Dog, we do work with teams preparing for therapy dog assessments, and for those who want to train their emotional support dogs to the canine good citizen level or address apartment living behavioral concerns.  We do not assist with assessment or training of service dog public access, service dog behavior, or service dog task training, ie. no we do not train service dogs.

For those looking for a service dog instructor there are a number of avenues.

  1.  The most highly recommended is work with an accredited organization that formally raises, trains and matches service dogs.  This is considered the most ‘guaranteed’ way to ensure a successful partnership with a dog who can meet the handler’s needs while having the temperament and aptitude for safe, comfortable public access work.  Search for a in International Guide Dog Federation or Assistance Dogs International accredited program.  IGDF and ADI programs do not generally work with a client to train a dog the client already has, but instead after an in-depth application process to assess the client’s needs, the program will match the client to a dog the program has raised and trained during a team training process.  Programs often have wait lists of 6 months to 3 years, and some require financial support from the client, while others are free for the client.  Since it is estimated less than 1% of dogs in the general dog population (ie not specifically bred or assessed for public access service work) has the structure, temperament and aptitude for successful, safe public access service animal work, the program assumes the added costs and risks of dogs that do not successfully make it through the raising and assessment process, thereby making this avenue the most cost effective and most likely to succeed for the person with disability in gaining a service dog who can do the job required.
  2. For people who an existing service dog program doesn’t train dogs to meet their specific need (though the range of service dogs trained by and through programs increases yearly), then carefully researching and working with a private trainer is the next most likely way of success.  This route is of course, expensive financially (service dog trainers like any other professional will of course charge for their services, time and expertise), time intensive and emotionally intensive.  It is also one of ‘buyer beware’ as there are many fraudulent folks out there without proper knowledge or skill to help a client assess and train a service dog, so please do your research carefully before contacting with a specific trainer.  And it is recommend you do not go get a dog without first contracting with an experienced service dog trainer who can then guide you through the selection and assessment process when finding a dog to increase the odds the dog will successfully pass through the stages of training and assessment.  This process will generally take at 1-2 years depending on the age of the dog acquired and any prior training the dog has had (it may take even a year plus to just find a suitable prospect dog to attempt to train for service work) and runs the risk that even if you and your trainer do everything ‘right’, the dog being trained may still not pass the final assessments in which case the client may now have to find a suitable home for their now non-service dog, or decide to keep the dog as a pet and still be without a working service dog.
  3. For people who have existing dog training experience and who either a service dog program doesn’t meet their needs or who want to train their own service dog, in the USA, a person can owner train their own service or guide dog.  It is still recommended in such cases that the person consult and contract with an experienced service dog training professionals especially if the handler has never before trained their own service dog.  This route runs the same risks as approach #2 above.
  4. The avenue most likely to end in failure is one where a new-to-dog training person attempts to train their dog to be a service dog without assistance of an experienced service dog trainer.  Why?  Because public access service work requires a dog with incredible stress and novelty tolerances, forgiveness, and recovery as well as being biddable, intelligent, focused and structurally sound.  As state above, less than 1% of the general dog population has such qualities so the chances of a green handler finding such a dog and then being able to train the dog in the necessary skills without professional assistance is very low.

Service and Guide Dogs can play an amazing role in increasing the independence for a person with disability.  But for such to be successful for the dog, handler and the safety of the general public it must be done with thoughtful research, care, understanding, patience and education.

a group of 2 retrievers and 2 poodle guide dogs standing in harness

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