You may have noticed that there are more and more “service dogs” out and about when you are at the store. Walmart and grocery stores are hot spots, and planes are filled with even more of these dogs.
The reason you are seeing more of these dogs is not because there are more people with disabilities out there. Service dogs and ESAs are in the public eye more and more, and some people really like the idea of being able to take their pet everywhere with them. A quick Google search will show you a bunch of companies that will give you an online Emotional Support Animal certification for under $100. While this may seem like a great option for you and your dog, things aren’t quite what they seem.
What is a service dog?
Service dogs are defined by the Americans with Disabilities Act as “a dog that is individually trained to do work or perform tasks for a person with a disability.” Tasks are behaviors that are cued on purpose by the hander, and work includes anything that the dog does without prompting. Tasks can include retrieving dropped items, bracing for handlers with balance disorders, turning on a light switch, or helping their handler into and out of a wheelchair. Guide dogs and hearing dogs do lots of “work” where they are trained to make their own decisions to alert their handler to things in the environment.
Most dogs who enter service dog training will flunk out before they reach the end of the program. There are very few dogs who have the right temperament to be good service dogs. Service dogs have a very high level of obedience training and manners in public. They cannot:
- Try to interact with people and dogs that they meet.
- Pull on leash, unless required for task work.
- Bark at, jump on, or growl at people and dogs.
- Show any fear or apprehension toward anything.
- Touch anything on store shelves.
- Pick up food off the ground.
- Have any history of aggression issues.
What is an emotional support dog?
Emotional support animals (ESAs) are a bit different. ESAs are dogs who have no formal training, and do not perform tasks and work, but provide support to someone with a psychiatric disability through their companionship. They are NOT allowed into any store unless the store is completely pet friendly. Airlines and certain types of housing allow ESAs where they would not normally accept pets. In these cases, ESA’s should be safe in public, non-destructive, and housebroken.
Service Dog and ESA Certifications
Many different websites have cropped up claiming to sell certifications for your dog to be a service dog or an ESA. These sites are fraudulent, and there is no requirement for your dog to be certified in order to be either a service dog or ESA. People have been taking advantage of the current system, so in the future there will likely be required certifications, but they certainly will not be given because you filled out a form online.
We do recommend that those with service dogs go through and film a public access test with a professional trainer who has service dog experience. While this is not a requirement, it gives you documentation that your dog is exceptionally well trained and can help if you ever have to fight an access issue. We suggest filming all of your dog’s tasks and other relevant behaviors for the same reason.
Can you make your dog into a service dog?
Well the first question should be, do you have a disability? Does your disability require assistance that could be provided for a dog? If yes, then you can consider a service dog. If not, it would be fraudulent for you to claim that your dog is a service animal.
Now if you did say yes to the questions above, we then have to look at where your service dog would come from. Some people want to train their pet dog to do service work, but this rarely works out. It takes about 2 years to fully train a service dog, and most dogs can work until they are 8-9 years old. That working time frame is only 6-7 years if you start with a puppy, but gets even shorter if you are working with an older dog. Many dogs also have minor or major behavioral issues that make them poor candidates for service work, even if they are wonderful family pets.
If you decide to get a new dog to start the process, you really have three options. Option one is to go to a service dog program who will assign you a fully trained dog. These programs have long wait lists, but you won’t have to worry about your dog washing out for not making the cut. Option two is to get a rescue dog from the shelter. There are great dogs in shelters all over the country, but because their backgrounds are generally unknown, they tend to have higher washout rates in service work. Option three is to go to a breeder and get a puppy. This is often the option that we suggest, because it will generally cost you less than a program dog, but you have a background on the parents and can expect the puppy to mature in a certain way.
How does service dog training work?
The first thing we start with a new service dog prospect is basic obedience and manners, plus making sure that they are bombproof around anything they will encounter in the real world. People and dogs can’t be scary, loud noises can’t be scary, and new sights and smells should be ignored in favor of working with the handler. Once the puppy or dog knows their basic commands, we start to raise the bar and ask them to do more challenging things. For example, can they hold a down stay while food is dropped? Can they heel past a child that is trying to pet them? Distractions should be very heavily proofed for.
Next we will begin task training and teaching work. This is the area of service dog training that is the most varied. Everyone’s disability is different, and each dog will need to perform different tasks that are tailored to their handler. For example, I trained a hearing dog last year for someone who worked in the school system. In addition to teaching that dog to respond to normal everyday sounds, we had to teach her to also respond to the school fire alarm.
Public access training is the part where we start to take the dogs into different places. Service dogs should act no different at the mall than they do at the hardware store. This part of the training doesn’t begin until the dog is 8-12 months old, because some dogs are not mature enough to handle it until they are nearly a year old.
Below is a playlist of service dogs who have graduated from our programs before. The first dog, Maison, is shown on his first airport trip when he was about 14 months old. You will notice that he does a great job, but makes a few mistakes here and there. The slippery floor was hard for him to hold a sit on, so that is something that we had to go back and work with him more on. This is why it takes 2 years before a service dog is considered completely trained.
Service dogs are an incredible help to those who struggle with disabilities that effect every day of their life. While their training is expensive and time consuming, it can be a life saver for the people who need them. It can be easy to watch someone with their service dog and wish your dog was with you. Just remember that the handler of that dog is only in that position because of a disability that is a daily challenge for them.