So you’re thinking about getting a service dog, huh? Congrats on making the decision to do what you can to increase your independence! Or maybe you know someone looking for a service dog?
Perhaps you’re wondering what service dogs really DO? Can you really train your own service dog?
Hopefully, I’ll be able to answer some of those questions. I am currently working with an organization called K9s on the Frontline based out of Portland, Maine. They provide PTSD service dogs for Veterans in Maine free of charge. They are an amazing organization. They’ve partnered with North Edge K9 to help us train our pups as service dogs. I was given a Great Dane/Lab mix (I had requested a larger breed when I filled out the application because I also have mobility issues) named Andy. At the time of penning this, Andy and I are halfway through our 16-week training class. Andy is the 2nd service dog I’ve had. Kane, a German Shepherd, was my first. His primary function was as a seizure alert/response dog. I owner-trained Kane with the help of a trainer when problems arose.
Owner Training vs. A Program
Based on all of the above, the first thing I want to discuss is the difference between owner training and going through a program that helps you train. It should be noted that there ARE organizations that provide fully trained service dogs… I have no experience working with them so I won’t talk about what I don’t know. I hope you understand. Training your pet to be a service animal is A LOT of hard work. It takes daily training and consistency. One of the biggest mistakes people make is that they think their pet will make a marvelous service dog because just their companionship makes them feel better. While that may be the case, that does not a service dog make. Many dogs lack the personality to be a true service dog. It takes a smart, easily correctable/trainable, attentive, and “chill” pup to be a service dog. Dogs that are easily excitable or are jumpy, overprotective, inattentive, or those that bark a lot would not be a good fit. You’re already up against a wall with making sure the dog you pick has the right personality to be a good service dog. That’s challenge #1. I highly suggest you find a dog trainer willing to evaluate the dog you are thinking of training as your service dog. It will be well worth your time and your money.
Challenge#2 isn’t far behind. It’s the actual training. Folks get excited at what the future holds for them when it comes to getting a service dog. For many, it’s a “new leash on life” (pun intended). It’s taking back and asserting one’s independence which can be a HUGE deal. Because of this excitement, they forget that it takes a LOT of hard work. If you get a puppy, keep in mind that before you can even consider training service dog tasks, they need to be able to pass the good canine citizen test. Basic obedience is a MUST. There’s no way around it. There’s a reason it takes 18-24 months for programs to provide fully trained service dogs… If you are owner training or even going with an organization that helps you (like I’m doing now), you have to acknowledge your own physical limitations and take those into consideration. When I was training Kane, my health tanked, and I was homebound for the better part of a year. As a result, he lost a lot of his public access work skills because I just couldn’t him out to continue his training. I failed as a service dog trainer/handler with Kane. I feel much more confident working with North Edge K9 on Andy’s training. When I run into hiccups, they are there to offer help and suggestions. I HIGHLY encourage this option for anyone looking to owner train.
Challenge#2B – still talking about training. At this point, you may have a fully trained service dog. They can pass the good canine citizen test, they’ve been trained to do at LEAST three tasks that help mitigate your disability(-ies), and you think life is grand. It may be. But for them to maintain at this level, training has to continue to occur. Training will continue for the rest of their lives. You will encounter new situations and will have to reinforce the basics. You, as the handler, need to make sure that you are willing and able to put the work in. If not, it’s not fair to you, the dog, or the public for you to get a service dog and not maintain their training.
Fake Service Dogs
Challenge#3 – Fake service dogs. In 2018, we’ve seen A LOT of reports on fake service dogs. People are taking their pets and putting a vest on them so they can take them places. Without a national registration/certification process it’s hard to regulate this type of behavior. Up until recently, the differently-abled community has relied on the “on your honor” system. As a result, we are seeing the backlash. Poorly trained pets being labeled as service dogs and making access more difficult for the rest of us. When you’re out and about, it’s evident when you come across a TRAINED service dog and a spoiled pet. The ability to register without proof of training and to purchase a vest has only increased the number of fake service dogs we see out in public. These spoiled pets have been known to lash out and distract (sometimes physically attack) actual working dogs. This can put a person’s life in danger…and no I’m not being dramatic. If the fake service dog distracts a real service dog from being attentive to the owner… the owner may have a sudden plummet (or spike) in blood sugar and pass out, they may not have a warning to an impending seizure, they may eat something that has an allergen that puts them into anaphylactic shock…
Which brings us to challenge #4. When most people think of service dogs, they think of seeing-eye dogs for the blind, or people in wheelchairs/with amputations. Service dogs can also be trained to alert to blood sugar level drops/spikes, detect allergens, provide mobility assistance to someone with dysautonomia or myasthenia gravis. They may carry life-saving medications like an epi pen or nitro, provide protection for someone with PTSD or severe anxiety (*note – psychiatric service dogs are different than emotional support animals), they could be trained to pick up dropped items for an individual with POTS who would otherwise pass out from the change in position…The reasons for needing a service dog are vast. Challenge #4 is not allowing the ignorant comments from bystanders/the public to dissuade the person from a service dog. This also relates to challenge #3. Well-meaning individuals who are trying to help the fake service dog problem by calling out people they deem are not disabled. They cause more harm than good by judging the person’s lack of disabled appearance when they should be judging the demonstrated training (or lack thereof) of the dog.
Pick Your Battles
Challenge #5 is one that has personal significance for me – knowing which battles to fight and when to leave gracefully. As I mentioned above, there are many reasons for needing a service dog that are not always readily apparent to the naked eye — one reason being severe allergies. One of the things that we as service dog owners need to keep in mind is that there ARE people out there who are incredibly allergic to dogs. Is it fair to put our wants above theirs? I will often ask if anyone in my vicinity has a severe allergy to dogs. If there is someone, say at the same restaurant that I want to dine at, who makes me aware of their allergy, I will leave so they may continue their meal. I don’t believe it’s fair – or right – that I place my health ahead of another’s. A good friend of ours is severely allergic to dogs. She and her husband were both in our bridal parties when hubby and I got married. I’ve seen them maybe once a year as a result of her allergy to dogs.
I’ll stop there. There are so many challenges when it comes to training and owning a service dog. I hope you’ve found this helpful. If you want to follow along on my journey navigating Andy’s training and all our adventures, I’d like to invite you to come what service me on Instagram.
Follw Shawna and Andy on Social Media here:
Feature photo by Sharon McCutcheon on Unsplash
Other photos courtesy of the author